Superhero Nation


Mike Tanier

Part One of Five


15 high students were shot to death in a Colorado high school the week before the first draft of this story was completed by a gang calling themselves the Trench Coat Mafia. This story is partially my meditation on the violence of youth culture, and where it could lead us. Despite all the dark elements, I wrote this as a story of optimism, and my thoughts and prayers were with the victims of youth violence as I finished the manuscript.

For Karen, forever my love and my muse, and the most dedicated teacher and ally of teenagers that I know.

For Jessica, and all the other girls who, like Alicea, dream of running away rather than dreaming of becoming superheroes.

For Daniel Cameron Wash, born the night before I finished this story. May we leave you a better world.

Superhero Nation

Part One

Chapter One: The Eyes of Their Own Little Darlings

In the news business, we call what happened down in Jersey City a "fumble", and we see it about a million times more often than we'd like to. You've watched the scenario on the news: a McCoy officer or some other chump in a battle suit flies up and rescues someone who's just fallen off a cliff or a skyscraper or something. It looks great when a professional does it. When some wannabe "superhero" tries it, more often than not the coroner gets a call.

The problem is physics, plain and simple. Say a distressed damsel, a gangsta girl or some groupie hanger-on, falls from a 40-story penthouse ledge in Manhattan. Some goon in bargain-hunter's battle armor, fresh from saucing a few gang rivals, decides that he's going to play hero by catching her. Unfortunately, free fall is fast, reactions are slow, and jump-thrusters (even good ones) take a split-second to engage and still longer to overcome inertia and get you off the ground. So by the time Joe Battlesuit rises up to meet her, if he's lucky and has great reflexes, she's already fallen about 25 stories.

The clown in the suit, cocky because he's covered in stainless steel and totally ignorant of elementary mechanics, holds out his arms to catch her. But the difference between hitting the ground after 40 stories and hitting a pair of armor-plated arms after 20 stories is nada, so the impact with the "hero" kills her just as dead as the pavement would. Better, in many cases. Most idiots catch the victim while still thrusting upwards in their battle suits, so the downward-moving victim meets a rapidly upward-moving projectile, and the differential averages out to be about the same as if the poor girl had just hit the ground at twice the speed. Worse still, two out-stretched, armor-plated arms flying upwards might as well be two dull, steel blades, for the effect that they have upon impact.

So I headed into Jersey City fully expecting to see a body in three pieces. And that's what I got.

When you see professionals pull off that move, you have to remember that you're watching months of field training and the delicate synergy between a human operator and a carefully programmed battle suit. McCoy Unit officers are trained to over-jump a falling target, drop to a safe differential velocity, catch the target on the decline, then thrust like hell to slow their decent. That's why the officers are usually only a few feet off the ground at the end of a rescue sequence, and they often wind up tumbling like tin cans if everything doesn't go perfectly. Even with the training and athleticism of a professional crime fighter, targeting computers are essential to perform the maneuver successfully. Despite all the effort, the pros often mess up. The results are so gory that even the tabloids won't show the footage.

But maybe they should. If we were to turn a few stomachs by showing what happens when morons with superhuman capabilities decide to do something stupid, I think it would be worthwhile. Even if it just prevented one scene like the one I was sent to cover in Jersey City. When one of your spotters says that he saw a fumble, you skip lunch and bring an extra handkerchief.

There were a handful of squad cars and at least a half-dozen medical teams on the scene, their beacons making a Christmas display out of the area around the power lines. The local affiliates were already shooting story introductions and cutaways. I was late, but it wasn't critical. Jersey stations would interrupt the soaps for this nonsense, but New York would run the story canned at four o'clock and the network would be happy with my account of events when six-thirty rolled around. This wasn't sensational stuff by New York standards; super teams and street gangs make chalk outlines of themselves in the Big Apple every week.

I recognized a McCoy Unit Lieutenant from New York named Danny Jenkins surveying the scene. I knew he would cut through the crap and give me a straight story, so I powered up my minicam, set it up on it's floater, and gave Danny the warmest greeting that the circumstances warranted.

"Below that high voltage tower lies the body of Amanda Douglass," he explained, pointing to three sheets lying in a heap about twenty feet away. "Once a whole person, she's now a story in three acts.

"Receiving medical assistance to our left is Aaron O'Connell." Danny continued. "Aaron endorses the Fujitana Merlyn wing-glider pack with two superconductive propulsion thrusters, safeties removed, of course. Unfortunately, that device is not recommended for airborne rescues, primarily because it offers no protection for the arms."

Aaron was on a stretcher, both arms bandaged pinkie to shoulder and jutting from his body at unnatural angles. A paramedic was applying a syringe of something that couldn't possibly be strong enough for the pain he was bearing.

"Party of the third part, resting comfortably in the back of that squad car, is the team's leader, Jeff Brady, from whom we confiscated a whole junkyard of super-powered bric-a-brac. Everything from a scope helmet to a shoulder launcher for percussion bombs and a moderate-yield CFC. All in all, a prize package worth about 30 years in a federal prison.

"Supposedly, these are college students, which means that schools must be accepting dumber kids every year."

Danny had been interviewed enough times to cut to the who-what-where, and he trusted me enough to know that his smart-ass remarks wouldn't make it onto the screen.

"We don't know much else about them," he continued. "I'm sure they had a team name, but they aren't dumb enough to admit to being a vigilante team and risk prosecution under VPA. Not that it will do them any good: we know what they are. Anyway, Jeff's mommy and daddy are sending lawyers and a strict order for Jeff to keep his fool mouth shut."

"Do we know who they were fighting against?" I asked.

"Nobody. They were practicing."

That's right. A girl was dead, and two kids were going to jail, all in the name of some overzealous practice session. Who did these kids think they were going to face off against, that they had to perform delicate airborne maneuvers? Hell, the stupid kids live in New Jersey: there are no mountains, and except for three towns, I don't think there's a building over five stories.

I asked Danny if he thought the kids would be brought up on federal charges. The presence of a McCoy officer usually meant indictment on VPA charges, although adolescent offenders were sometimes given a break, especially in Jersey, where the governor was an old Joe Bell associate who advocated rehabilitation programs and was leery of federal intervention.

Danny shook his head. "I plan to make an example of these kids."

That didn't sound like the Danny I knew, so I must have given him a funny look. "Oh, they won't be charged with murder," he explained. "I don't think the local DA would have much of a case. Manslaughter 1: that will be the state's charge, piled high with malicious mischief, possession of firearms and reckless endangerment. That comes out to about 10 years in rehab for technical juveniles, maybe 12. The ATF won't be satisfied by that, not with the hardware these kids were carrying and what they were doing with it. Think about it: where would we be if that knucklehead's shoulder launcher discharged and knocked out the power lines?"

I saw his point. "I'm going to quote you as saying that these kids 'will probably be facing federal charges.' Now, can you soundbyte for me?"

"Sure. What kind of tone do want? Angry? Outraged?"

"Try exasperated. We'll save the melodrama for the local stations."

Danny got into character. McCoy officers are not just investigators and soldiers, they're also trained actors. Charlie McCoy would have had it no other way: he wanted his branch of the ATF to have the best public relations of any bureau of the government, and it worked.

Danny gazed into my floating camera with thoughtful eyes. With his tailored gray suit, gray trench coat (the battle armor only goes on when it's needed) and handsome features, he projected the ideal image of a McCoy officer. "This is a tragic waste of human life," he said in carefully modulated tones. "If this doesn't make people recognize the terrible dangers that illegal vigilantism causes, then I don't know what will. This was just senseless." He shook his head. "Senseless."

". . . and cut!" I said, letting Danny go about his investigation. I hung around for an hour or so, finishing my story. The coroner filled in the precise, gruesome details of Amanda Douglass' death, while the local sheriff gave me some of the demographic information I needed on the kids. I programmed my floater to hover up to the top of the power lines to provide a sense of how far above the ground Amanda was when she fell; that was my only concession to sensationalism. Then I loaded the data table on the minicam with information, from the precise height of the power lines to the specs and capabilities of the weapons and gadgets found on the kids. I even established a link to a canned feature about the dangers of operating superconductive and compressed fusion devices near sources of high voltage. I uploaded a tight story to New York, ready for broadcast: interesting for the casual viewer and detailed enough to satisfy the hardcore junkies who watch the news with their net feed set to Full Enabled. That's what makes me the best reporter in the business: I always sweat the small stuff.

My critics (I do have a few) call me a cynic, focusing on a small problem in a big, beautiful world. Outside of the inner cities, I'm told, vigilante problems are minimal, and there would be fewer if media types like myself didn't blow incidents out of proportion. "Just report the news. Hold the attitude," I read about 50 times per day in my e-mail. Hey, all I do is report the news. When I do an editorial, I state my opinion. If my stories about teenage brats getting hopped-up on Ray-Tae and engaging in turf wars don't fill you with that warm feeling, change the channel, but don't ask me to change the facts. And if you look out your window, whether you're in Alphabet City or Omaha, you can see that I speak the truth: metahuman vigilantism, or "superheroics," are a major problem with both adults and young people, and the problem isn't going away.

These are the 2040's, and anyone can call himself a superhero if he (or she) is willing to spend a little money and break a few laws. You can find hunks of cheap battle equipment like the kids in Jersey City used at any chop shop in America, or you can build your own goodies with components available at your local mall. Go into any bad neighborhood, and you'll find someone selling a vial full of liquid that will make you strong enough to punch through a brick wall after about ten doses. Find the right disreputable surgeon and you can get some enhancement permanently attached to your body; if you're slick, you can even put it on your health insurance. Send your kid off to college with a credit card, and he's as likely to buy a wrist-mounted blaster, a glider, or some jump boots as he is to buy virtual games.

Anybody can buy the paraphernalia to turn himself into some sort of turbo-powered, personal-protection machine, but you can't buy the common sense that comes with the power. What's worse, the lure of muscle-bound combat always attracts the least stable segments of our society. That's why the average superhero battle consists of two armored gangs of kids duking it out for no good reason. There are very few good guys, but there are lots of guys and girls just looking for someone to punch.

It's hard to cover this scene without resorting to sarcasm, even if it's just a defense mechanism. I've seen too many people end up like Amanda Douglass, and not just kids. If I didn't crack an irreverent joke now and then, I might lose my sense of humor forever.

Am I a cynic? I don't think so. I still call these lost souls, this collection of misguided, confused people in control of such frightening power, "superheroes," and not just for irony's sake. Lost in all the senseless mayhem and its bloody consequences are some ideals which, so very rarely, peek out from the rubble: a sense of noble sacrifice, perhaps, or informed civil disobedience, or of chivalry. On those rare occasions when I can see past the drug-fueled bloodlust and see a human being struggling to do what he truly believes is right, I realize that there's a ray of hope in even the worst circumstances. I guess that makes me an optimist.

An optimist: now, that's something no one has ever accused me of being.

Amanda Douglass had been dead and buried and forgotten by the media for nearly a week when my editor called me in for the monthly staff meeting. We could have met on-line, of course, but Gus is an old-fashioned newspaper man who likes to meet his people face to face now and then. Besides, he doesn't trust us, and he shouldn't. I have a Personal Turing Machine that the guys in R&D rigged up for me. The simulation is so good on the net that it can simulate me almost perfectly in an eleven-man conference call. Gus knew that if he slacked off on the monthly meetings and let us dial in, chances are he would wind up talking to eleven computers programmed to more-or-less agree with each of his brilliant suggestions, while me and the boys enjoyed the good life at his expense.

Anyway, it was no great sacrifice for me to stop by the office; I lived in Manhattan. Jerry Coyle telecommuted from Springfield, Mass., and considered the monthly trek over the Tapen Zee Bridge some kind of personalized torture, but for me it was a chance to cruise uptown.

Most of the business of the meetings didn't involve me anyway, so I never had to sweat it out with Gus, assuming that my stories were good, complete, and on-time. I didn't have a staff, unlike the real editors, so I didn't worry about getting chewed out for using too much copy toner (as Zybinski in Metro was) or hearing about how some proofreader slug missed six typos in one story at Full Enabled Mode (Coyle's chronic problem). I was just a contributing editor, a glorified writer/reporter with a corner office I never used and a book deal that brought prestige to the affiliate and the network. All I worried about was me, myself, and that clown in the mirror.

Gus worked his way through all the budgetary and quality control gripes he was saddled with, giving most of my colleges a stiff dressing down in the process, before covering anything meaningful. "It's time to start thinking about February sweeps weeks," he announced.

The distinguished journalists around the table let out a collective groan, as nothing gives a hard-news type more fits than ratings pressure. Hell, it wasn't even Christmas yet. November sweeps had just ended, and we had gutted through every tawdry story. My tailor made contribution: a three-part expose on suburban "super-villains," which not coincidentally dovetailed with a network miniseries on the same subject. Viewers who turned the family filters off were treated to a generous dose of skin in both the fiction and the fact (not my skin, of course, but that of an SV caught by my camera with his tights down). I even used the f-word in my Full Enabled editorial, which drew a stinging reprimand from mom. I turned that story in, washed down my nausea with a hefty dose of single malt, and told myself that I would never pimp myself for another ratings point. And compared to the other guys, I got off easy.

But we all knew Gus was right. It was time to pay the bills. The network planned a mini-series around a romance novel about teenage beauty queens, so Coyle was assigned to a story about real-life teenage beauty queens; I guess there are worse fates. The mothership's top show, "Manhattan Vice", would be doing a show on cyber-porn artists downtown, so guess where Zybinski was going? Gus gave Elbert Dunbar, who had fumbled a police corruption story back in November, the sow's ear job of interviewing astronomers for some ill-conceived tie-in with the network's sci-fi snoozer, "Orion 6". Yep, it was Christmas shopping time, and Santa Gus was handing out 57 varieties of coal.

At least the other editors had staffs onto whom they could pawn off the truly disagreeable duties. I wouldn't be so fortunate, and Gus appeared to be saving me for last.

"And finally," he said, finally, "there's Randy."

"No assignment for me, boss? Sorry to hear that. You'll get four reports from the field per week, three minutes each on general enabled, or as assigned."

"Nice try. Let's talk vigilantes, Randy. Superheroes."

I rolled my eyes. "Actually, I think Schmitty said he needed some extra hands in sports, with the Giants, Bombers and Jets combining for eight wins this year."

Gus laughed. "You must be desperate to avoid an assignment if you're volunteering to cover New York football."

Was I avoiding a superhero assignment? Vigilante stories were my bread and butter; they had put me on the map. Anything gets to be a grind, but six years on the same beat and I had never thought of doing anything else until Gus cornered me.

Maybe I had been suffering from burnout, if just a little. Amanda Douglass had been the fourth corpse I filed a story on since Halloween, and each story seemed to get more gruesome and more desperate. I had been through stretches like that before; usually, the losing streak ends when some vigilante turns himself in and starts a program to help troubled kids, and I feel rejuvenated by that little glimmer of hope.

I told myself that Amanda and the others weren't bothering me any more than they should bother any sane man. It was the networks. They would saddle me with some dove-tail story tied to an insensitive, sensationalized reading of a glorified dime novel. You need a ready sense of humor to produce film and write copy for crap like that, and my sense of humor was home with the flu.

"What's it this time, Gus? 'I Married the Armorlitia?' 'Showgirl by day, Vigilante by Night?'"

Gus shook me off. "You got me all wrong. No tie-in story Randy. You get to do some real news. This assignment comes direct from the news bureau."

The others grumbled audibly. Sometimes, it's good to be the most popular kid at the prom.

"You've covered four vigilante deaths in the last two months," Gus continued.

"Thanks for the reminder, boss. By the way, how's the divorce coming?""

He scowled at me, then continued, checking with his notes. "Three of the victims were college age, one was. . . my God. . . a seventh grader?"

That was the punch-in-the-teeth story the week before the Amanda Douglass case. Ray Gunther, Jr., out on Long Island, got a hold of dad's turbo-glider. Apparently, the guys at the senior Gunther's lodge liked to dabble with illegal, high tech goodies, just for a lark. At any rate, the glider wasn't locked up, and little Ray decided to show off to his friends how good a flyer he was. He lost his balance on his window sill, fired the thrusters almost directly into the ground, and earned his classmates a day off from school just 4/10ths of a second later. As ghastly as it gets.

I explained that story to Gus, who was just too busy to keep up with my regular contributions. He winced. "Mmmm. Glad I didn't have to work that night. Anyway, that story aside, there appears to be a trend here. Vigilantes are getting younger."

"Not strictly speaking," I said. "The late teens and early 20's have always been within the typical superhero demographic." A few years ago, though, they wouldn't do anything that could get them killed. They weren't getting younger. Just stupider.

"That's irrelevant. The public is encountering more vigilante teenage deaths, therefore it's a story. I'm taking you off the four-a-week beat until King Day. I want you to produce a one-hour, prime time special. We'll run it, and if it's good, we'll give it to the network."

My colleagues were really giving me the Eye of Death now. They were stuck trying to wedge stories into the newscast. I swung my own show, which meant a big budget, reduced responsibilities to other projects, and a bigger sliver of the limelight. I still wasn't clear on the project, though.

Gus filled me in soon enough. "I want you to run with a team of teenage vigilantes for a few weeks. Notice I said 'team.' Preferably, I want guys and girls. If you find an all-girl team, all the better, but don't bother with an all-guy team. This is a plum assignment, but it's still the sweeps and cleavage must be present at all times."

That's my editor, Mr. Integrity.

"Run with these kids. Get some action footage. Get inside their heads. Let Ma and Pa American think that they're looking into the eyes of their own little darlings when they look at these kids. Tell the whole story, but save the scholarly stuff for the Full Enabled version and the web. I want an hour of crisply edited documentary footage with your Randy Stone signature sprawled wherever it's appropriate."

I rolled the assignment around in my mind. "Great story idea, boss, but it won't run."

Gus looked at me sideways. He thought I was trying to get out of the job, but I was serious.

"Let's say that, for the sake of argument, I find a bunch of kids dumb enough to admit that they're breaking the Vigilante Prevention Acts in front of a minicam. If they're over 22, forget about it. First of all, they aren't teenagers, and the story loses the angle you're looking for. Besides, over 22 and they're tried as adults, no questions asked, and nobody stupid enough to admit to a federal offense on camera is bright enough to tie a necktie, let alone operate a blaster helmet. If I do find some younger kids, they'll be juveniles, or technical juvies if they're 17-22. Either way, the story won't run without a waiver from a parent or guardian, which will take us back to square one. Or, we can run the whole hour with blurred faces and electronically altered voices, which will make the show about as interesting as The Fishing Hole."

Gus was more than a little miffed by my lecture. "We do have a legal department, Randy, which you are not a member of. If we get technical juvies with no guardians, then all we have to do is change their names and get their own signatures on a waiver. Sure, that might be tough, but if you're as good as you say you are, you'll be able to dig up some photogenic kids who aren't afraid to incriminate themselves in the name of being famous. And if they're in their early 20's, that's fine. Consider college age the limit."

I was about to balk some more, but Gus continued:

"And we do have a fall-back story if you can't make contact with a suitable subject. How does 'What really lives in the Hudson River?' grab you?"

"There's no reason for threats, boss."

"It's not a threat. Everybody's very high on this concept except you. Sales says it can block out all the advertising in five minutes as soon as you sign on. Don't rain on the parade, Randy."

So everything was settled. I was on another vigilante case. Superhero case, if you will. This would be a big one: I had an hour of multi-media to fill and a bad luck streak to break, not to mention the Olympian task of making contact with a vigilante squad which met the story specifics.

It was time to hit the pavement.

Chapter 2: Never Anyplace Nice

Tracking down vigilantes isn't much harder than tracking down a drug dealer or pimp. Sure, the stakes are higher, and there may not be a vigilante on every street corner, but after a few years on the beat, I knew all the haunts. Finding superheroes would be easy; finding superheroes that met the criteria Gus gave me would be a trick. Gus wanted suburban teens in tight costumes playing with dangerous toys, precisely the kind of people you don't find in Manhattan or the boroughs. Your urban hero is usually a gang member using Ray-Tae to get ahead on the street, or a disgruntled subway rider out to pop a few CFC-caliber caps into the next punk who hassles him for change. At best, you might run across some Bleaker Street Irregular popping Phinny-Bar as part of some protest against society. While these people can be fun to watch on the street, they don't make great television. Teams like that star-crossed bunch down in Jersey City - nice college kids with bad habits- bubble to the surface quickly and burn out fast.

I needed to hook an out-of-towner, a suburban kid who comes to the city for the best deals on drugs or hardware. This was no problem. Half the pawn shops in Manhattan trade in illicit hardware of some form or another, and plenty of larger "chop shops" do a brisk business in tech weaponry. Gold Street Electronics was just such a place: a second-hand video equipment shop in front, a warehouse of illegal weapons in back. The place was notorious; don't ask how they stayed in business, although my bet was that ownership made the same arrangements with the authorities that they made with me when I discovered them three years ago.

"Randy!" the owner said, greeting me warmly as I entered Gold Street. Mahmoud the Kurd played the part of the jolly, respectable businessman well. He led me through the legitimate store and beyond double doors, where those who have the right connections can choose from the wide selection of deadly armament and supplies strewn about on wooden benches. A pair of muscle bound monsters, obviously Rae-Tae users, browsed through a carton of cheap power gauntlets, while a scrawny kid plowed through bins of spare parts.

"What are you looking for today, sir?" Mahmoud asked as I pretended to examine some top shelf merchandise.

"I'll know when I find him," I whispered.

One of the muscleheads tightened a gauntlet around his fist and began pounding his partner across the chest with it. They were clearly just horsing around, but the punches were so hard that their impact echoed through the store. Mahmoud cursed softly in an Arabic tongue.

"Please do not test the merchandise so forcefully," he said to them. "You break it, you buy it."

The giant with the gauntlet looked angry. "How are these things supposed to make you punch harder?"

The Kurd sighed. "They are not brass knuckles, sir. They need CFC batteries to operate. The static field they generate would produce a very impressive force if you punched your companion."

The kid grunted and approached Mahmoud. I feared trouble; these guys appeared to be spoiling for a fight, as Rae-Tae users often are just after a fix. Rae-Rage, it's called on the street, and it can be lethal to anyone who gets on the addict's bad side. Mahmoud knew the drill, and began to back off; the kid at the rummage bins even fidgeted a bit.

"I don't need batteries to knock your ass back to the desert," the thug said, advancing on Mahmoud.

Negotiating with a hopped-up kid with chemical muscles would be a waste of energy, and Mahmoud knew it. He pulled a military issue CFC rifle from the wall, popped a moderate-yield CFC into the supply coupling, locked it in, powered up, and drew a bead on the main thug's temples, all in about one second.

"Don't tell me you're stupid enough to try to hurt a chop shop owner in his own chop shop," I said as Mahmoud caressed the trigger.

The thug froze.

The scrawny kid approached the other goon. He maybe came up to his shoulders. "If the Kurd gets hurt, I don't get my merchandise. You don't want to know what happens next."

"Who the hell are you?" the thug asked, ready to toss this mosquito across the store.

The little guy, hiccup-quick, sweep-kicked his opponent of his feet. He pulled a knife from his jacket, squatted over his opponent and thrust the weapon into the flesh above his shoulder blade.

"I'm the guy with the knife at your throat."

Mahmoud motioned the kid away, and they let the two goons leave without incident. Mahmoud wiped his brow quickly stripped the weapon and returned it to the wall.

Things calmed down, and the scrawny kid approached Mahmoud. He was a shaggy, gaunt little mongrel, with a pointed goatee and rings in his nose and lip and eyebrows. His arms were full of spare parts: tiny servo-motors, a few coolant rods, some unidentified circuitry, and a pair of Whizzers: razor-sharp, sickle-shaped metal pinwheels about six inches in diameter.

"Those guys had all the brains God gave a dead squirrel," the kid said, dumping his wares on the counter. "That's more action before lunch than I usually get all day. Anyhow, I found what I was looking for."

"Yes," Mahmoud replied as he added up the merchandise. "The whizzers are quite sharp. Hooked to a drill bit, they will cut through cinder block."

"I figure me and my crew can rig them to the mounts on the flight pack, open up the throttle, and cut through steel if I had to."

The Kurd adjusted his glasses and counted the surplus items. "I don't know if that will work. Anyway, I must ask that you pay in cash, as you owe me money from your last check, which the bank did not accept."

The kid smiled; he was missing a front tooth, and another was gold, imprinted with a tint hologram I couldn't make out. "I got something better, buddy. Plastic."

He drew a credit card from his back pocket. Mahmoud studied the card suspiciously. The shop did take credit: Mahmoud would ring the sale as a legitimate purchase, then cook the books later. He charged credit customers a healthy tariff for this extra effort.

"Who is this person?" Mahmoud asked.

The kid shook his head, as if irritated by the question. "She's my friend."

"How can you sign for this person? I don't know who this person is. If this person comes to the store with you I will let you have these."

"She's back home in Jersey," the kid replied, throwing his hands up in disgust. "I don't get this type of problem anywhere else."

"Perhaps you are not buying such . . . important items anywhere else. Perhaps you will want to purchase a small electronic item at a department store with this card, then offer it to me for its pawn value."

"You won't give me full value for what I buy."

Mahmoud shrugged his shoulders. "Such is the nature of business."

"This is a fucking racket," the kid said, storming out of the back room and leaving the parts on the counter.

Mahmoud smiled at me. "He is a regular. We go around and around like that all the time. His checks are no good."

"Did he say he was from Jersey?"

Mahmoud nodded. "Atlantic City, I think."

I chased after the kid. He mentioned a "crew," which meant he was probably part of a gang or team. Gus suggested that I track down suburban vigilantes, but kids from a resort town like Atlantic City would certainly do in a pinch. What's more, the credit card the kid used belonged to a woman. His mother? A stranger he robbed? Possibly, but this also was a sign that there might be women in his superhero team. Finally, he talked about a flight pack. Gang-bangers like the kids who threatened Mahmoud don't go for anything that eccentric; that meant that this kid stood a rung or two up the food chain from a common street goon.

He was only a block away when I caught up with him.

"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation with Mahmoud," I said, trying to match stride beside him.

He kept walking briskly.

"What's your name, buddy."

He smiled wryly. "JD."

"So, JD, what's a guy need all those servo-motors and cutting devices for?"

"I use them in my work."

"What kind of work?"

" I do a little demolition."

"And the girl who owns the credit card, is she part of the demolition crew?"

He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, she's the secretary." He stopped suddenly. "Any more questions, asshole?"

It was my turn to be coy. "No reason to be like that, JD. It just so happens that I might have some work for a demolition crew like yours."

He examined me suspiciously, then shook his head. "No way. You ain't a player. You ain't a cop, either, but you ain't a player. Whatever your angle is, save it for the next fool."

He pushed me aside and walked away. I decided not to follow. If I wanted to continue the argument, I could have waited for him to return to Gold Street. There was no point, though. I had to secure a release from his whole team. Heck, I had to find out for sure if he really had a team, and if they were worth following, and I wouldn't get that information by arguing on a street corner. To do that, I would have to track this JD back to his own territory and watch him and his "crew" in action.

I returned to Gold Street. "What was the name on that credit card?" I asked.

Mahmoud shook his head. "Telling you that would extend beyond the boundaries of our agreement and endanger the trust my customers have in my services."

I laid a few bills on the table.

"Alicea," he said. "Alicea Mann."


Given a name and a location, a good reporter can find out almost anything. My buddies at the network hacked into the credit card records for me. The address was a postal box, but I had a record of Alicea Mann's purchases and payments dating back for a year.

I was off to Atlantic City, just a two- hour drive away. More specifically, I was planning a stakeout by an automatic banking machine on The Atoll, a machine from which Alicea Mann (or her boyfriend, or whoever has been using her credit cards) withdrew a weekend stash every Friday sometime after 4:00 PM.

The Atoll was a sight to behold from the mainland: a garish, gaudy jewel set against the stark gray of the water on a cloudy afternoon. Built on landfill just two miles off the coast of the city, it was home to five major hotel casinos as well as hundreds of smaller shops, restaurants and amusements. For a city that sold its soul to the lords of gambling nearly a century ago, she was the latest transfusion of fresh blood, the most recent last-ditch effort to attract thrill seekers from around the country and the world. It was the resort's last chance to give elderly couples from Ohio something they couldn't get at an Indian reservation, or on a riverboat, or over the web from an offshore location broadcast into the comfort of their homes. The Atoll did a brisk business, but it was hard to imagine just how many dollar slots it would take to cover the costs of the billion-dollar undertaking, and every dollar she brought off the coast came at the expense of the crumbling boardwalk and impoverished city behind it.

There were only two ways out to The Atoll, tourboat or tunnel, and bad weather kept the tourboats docked. I boarded an underground lift from the mainland, descended almost two hundred feet, and stepped onto a moving walkway, which transported me and a few dozen elderly gamblers at two miles per hour plus our walking speed. Around us, holographic promotions and advertisements kept us entertained. Comedian Derek Porter would be appearing at The Shoals on New Years Eve. Entrepreneur Stephen DeVance would be hosting a gala Christmas buffet at his El Dorado casino. Country music legend Lee Ann Rimes' week of performances were already sold out. The advertisements flanked me as I set a brisk pace through the long tunnel, ignoring concessionaires and sidestepping slow-moving tourists.

Another lift greeted me at the end of the tunnel, and I stepped into the main courtyard, a place so tacky that it was breathtaking. A ring of lasers constantly shine down on the main entrance, statues of gold and marble were at every turn, and rushing fountains flanked the elevator entrance. The retractable dome 150 feet above kept the cold weather out; in the summer, the courtyard was an open-air environment. Beyond the fountains was the clamor of eateries and shops and kiosks, as well as the entrances of three of the major casinos: the Eldorado, Windsor Castle, and the Shoals.

Security normally kept a low profile, but they spotted my carrying case as soon as I stepped off the lift. Three guards surrounded me, although they kept their cool and didn't act threatening. I instinctively flashed a press credential.

"Mr. Stone," one asked after checking my credential. "You are aware of the imaging restrictions at the Atoll?"

I was. I had done my homework. No motion imaging was permitted on the Atoll without the express consent of its administrators. Floaters and other remote-piloted recording equipment were also prohibited. Essentially, there were two reasons for this: casino owners didn't want gamblers using high-tech snooping devices to get an edge, and promoters wanted to protect their trademarks by restricting pictures of the big casinos to what the advertisers wanted tourists to see. Neither case applied to me, but I had to play by the rules: I left all my cameras in the van on the main island, which meant I didn't have an extra pair of eyes and ears for surveillance. All I was carrying was my portable.

"This portable does not contain any imaging capabilities, does it?" security asked, examining my computer.

"There are jacks for video peripherals," I said, pointing these out. "I do have a cellular modem hookup, which I believe is not prohibited."

"No sir. But I must remind you that cellular transmissions are forbidden on the casino floors."

"Not a problem. I'm here for a late lunch."

The prohibition on motion imaging meant that a traveler who wanted anything more than a still photo image of his stay on the Atoll would need to buy one: such was the beauty of trouncing on freedom of the press. Holograph and video shops lined the quarter mile thoroughfare across the narrow width of the island, as well as the longer concourse that ran parallel to the shore. Tourists could buy a travel keepsake that amounted to nothing but a commercial for the Atoll from any of a hundred kiosks for around fifty bucks. It was a rip-off, but that and the gambling kept the food and drinks cheap.

I staked out the bank machine in question, a busy one across from a trendy cognac bar with courtyard tables. I ordered a beer and logged on. One of the tech boys at the network was able to get me one-way access to the bank's systems, which meant I could watch transactions from remote locations. I selected the bank machine across the courtyard, sipped my beer, and hoped that Alicea Mann would be tapping her resources that night.

It took an hour, but bang: her name popped onto my screen, and I looked up to see a slender young woman counting her money as she left the machine. I started to load up the portable to follow her, but she came right for me. She waltzed up to the bar and laid one of her new bills on it as I strained to listen to her conversation.

"Let me get a St. Vincents."

The bartender poured her a cognac. "Another tough week?" he asked.

"And another tough weekend to follow," she replied as she took a drink from the glass.

She was not tall, and she was so narrow that her body was almost childlike. Her hair was bobbed around her face and long in the back, her eyes distant and forlorn. She was dressed in business attire, a skirt and a smart top. As she chatted with the barkeep and looked out across the ocean, I kept telling myself that she couldn't really be a vigilante: that JD character just picked this girl's pocket.

"Uh oh. Sounds like trouble with the roommates again," the bartender said.

"The roommates, the boyfriend, you name it."

"The boyfriend again? You should tell him to take you out someplace nice for all he makes you put up with."

"Oh, he takes me out." Her expression became even more distant. "But never anyplace nice."

She downed two drinks and was on the move. This was crunch time for me, and I felt naked without a floater nearby to follow her if I slipped up. She started window shopping, and I decided that following her around the Atoll was too dangerous; I would be spotted too easily. Since there was only one way off the island that day, through the elevators, I reasoned that I would be able to catch up with her at the other end of the tunnel. I could then trail her at a safer distance in the city.

So I had some time to think while I waited for her to leave the Atoll. That little exchange with the bartender told me I was on the right track. My first impression had been that the girl was just too much of a waif to be involved in the vigilante business; that JD character could stolen her card or hacked into her files without her knowledge. That would have sent me back to square one. But the business about the roommates and the boyfriend sounded right, and she was the right type for the documentary: late teens/early twenties, cute in that winsome way. Who knows: rig a moderate-yield CFC to a harness, strap it on her back, and a little thing like her would have the blast capacity to bring down the roof of the Atoll.

She appeared, and I tried to be casual as I selected the same elevator as she did. It was awkward, as not many were leaving the Atoll on an early Friday evening, and we shared the lift alone. I made a great show of minding my own business, as did she until she suddenly looked up at me.

"I know what you're after," she said. Her gaze was haunting, accusing.

Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable. She figured out I was following her. "I'm not looking to try to pick you up, or anything."

She just stared through me. "That's not what you want."

She kept her eyes on me for the rest of the ride, which seemed to take an hour. I figured that she took me for a pervert, which made me feel even worse about following her back to her apartment. I kept expecting her to turn around and acknowledge me as I tailed her from a block away. But she didn't, and I followed her through the frigid streets to a dilapidated high rise in one of the city's typically dangerous neighborhoods. It was the perfect place for a vigilante refuge: close to crime, far from the law, in a place where no one watches his neighbors too carefully.

Night had already fallen by the time I brought the van around to the alley behind the apartment building. My exchange with Alicea Mann in the lift still haunted me. Maybe she recognized me from the network. Maybe I had tipped my hand; after all, vigilantes don't last long without a healthy, suspicious nature. But maybe there was more to her than met the eye.

My assignment was suddenly even more intriguing.


The night wore on, and I found myself on a hard folding chair at my van's editing console, sucking down hard candies and watching the video screens for signs of my quarry. The floater was perched on my roof; it's minicam angled up for a clear shot of the fire escapes. My other camera was aimed out the van's rear window at the parking exit. I wasn't monitoring the main entrance; these kids wouldn't waltz out the front door if they were looking for action.

The stakeout only took a few hours. At precisely 10:00 PM, something resembling an enormous gull or hawk flew out the 12th story window. It was no bird; it was a man with a flying apparatus. My floater was set for motion sensing once it acquired target, and it followed the avian silhouette as it fought gravity for a perilous second, achieved lift, and climbed above the tenement rooftops.

"JD," I whispered to myself.

The floater realigned when the flyer was out of its range. It turned back to the fire escapes just in time to catch another figure, dressed in black, bounding down the exterior cages of the iron structure like he was rappelling down a cliff wall. But this character had no ropes or climbing gear. He swung from the railing on one floor, released like a gymnast on the uneven bars, then caught himself on the floor below. He looked a little large for the acrobatics though: his upper body was thick with muscles. Still, he scaled seven or eight floors in just a few seconds, climbed onto the fifth floor fire escape, took a running start, and leapt across the alleyway. He cleared a good twenty feet, although he took advantage of an altitude change between the fire escape and the rooftop. He disappeared from sight.

"Damn," I said. I was going to lose both of them if I didn't hurry. I grabbed the floater's remote programmer and began typing furiously. I set it to fly up to a bird's eye view of the city, then scan for an image match to the recording it had just made of JD in his flight pack. If the floater found nothing, it would follow a random path above the city, stopping every thousand feet and searching its surroundings for an image match. This is an imprecise method of video tracking. Even with the night scope on, JD's figure was very dark, giving the floater a very limited pixel range with which to determine matches. There were few clear scale details and just a few seconds of video to work with. If JD flew two feet away from the floater, but his body was at the wrong angle, the floater wouldn't spot the match (although it would record the image, which could be helpful to me later). Conversely, the floater could mistake a large crow for its target and follow the bird all around the city. In a perfect world, I would have had the heat sensors set, but at that distance, they would have been set to such a sensitive range that the camera would follow the exhaust pipe of cars on the Ocean Drive.

As I programmed and fretted, the distinctive growl of a motorcycle engine echoed through the alley. From the other camera, I saw two figures leaving the garage, sharing the seat of an old jalopy of a Dust Demon scooter. They, too, were hard to get a good look at, but they were young and female.

"Alicea," I muttered, then frantically finished programming my eyes in the sky. Bad girls on bikes, muscle guys bounding across rooftops, and a flyer: I had an old-fashioned Atlantic City jackpot on my hands. When the girls cleared the corner, I started the van and pursued them.

The chase, unfortunately, didn't last long. Traffic flooded the island resort on a Friday night, and I was quickly mired in it. The girls knew the city better and could swerve between lanes, so I was at a disadvantage. Trapped at stoplights, I would see them passing down cross streets, back and forth, as though they were just cruising. A patrol? Probably, but the roundabout path also kept secret their starting location.

Having lost sight of the scooter after a few glimpses, I turned on the police scanner hoping for clues. At every crowded intersection, I checked the feed from the floater. It spent several minutes puttering about the sky searching, but just as frustration was setting in, I caught a break. The floater had locked onto JD and was following from a safe distance. They were flying low over rooftops. After they passed over a few lit signs, I was able to figure out that while I was heading south, JD was cruising over the north end of the island. Presumably, the girls were heading in the same direction, as was the muscle guy. I made a U-turn.

The floater took some great images, although all I saw was the aftermath; I couldn't drive and monitor the viewer at the same time. Staying 500 feet from its target and shooting with a zoom lens, it caught JD swooping in to join a melee with muscle guy. The two of them engaged an ordinary street gang- just guns and knives, no major tech- and the they took down eight hoods without much trouble. Not having seen the incident, I nonetheless drove right into the scene a few moments later. The kids were just teenagers left in a bloodied huddle on the street corner. All of them were probably involved in something illegal, judging by their armament, but who knew if they were actually committing a crime when these vigilantes attacked them? I stopped to take a few shots of the grim scene, heard the police announce the incident on the scanner, then moved on. The trail was warm.

Every few blocks in the bayside warehouse district I stumbled into another victim: a hooker, a dealer, or maybe just a kid sucking down a forty on the wrong corner at the wrong time. They appeared to be canvassing the neighborhood, taking out anyone suspicious, which in that part of town meant nearly everyone. They even took the effort to tie up one victim; presumably, he was too dangerous or important to leave without some extra precautions. I took some shots with my second camera; he was a black kid, around twenty, writhing in a tangle of bailing wire and choking into the scarf that covered his nose and mouth. The police would be busy in this neighborhood, and I wondered if this kid would choke or freeze before they caught up with him. I figured that I should at least take the gag off (but not untie him; he was probably guilty of something), get some specifics from him, then report his plight to the police.

The warehouse district was eerie at night, even for a hard-boiled type raised in Tribeca like yours truly. Nearly all of the surrounding buildings were vacant and boarded up; most were closed for the night. The bay and marshes loomed before me like a lonesome, windswept plain as I left the van to look after the young man. All was quiet, except for the wind. I began to wonder: why tie this guy up, unless you wanted him to draw some extra attention from a passerby? It was then that I heard a distinctive whirring sound, a hum almost inaudible unless you were accustomed to always hearing it over the shoulder.

My floater.

It was looming almost overhead, hovering motionlessly. When I looked up, it whirled noiselessly away, following its program and maintaining a 500 foot distance from its target.

I turned and galloped for the nearest non-vacant building. A much louder noise approached me from behind: the sound of a flight engine in high gear. The building ahead of me was closed for the night, but some systems were still running, which gave me my only chance.

As JD closed in to catch me, I ducked beneath a ventilation unit in the building's wall. As I had hoped, it was blowing out heat: not much, but enough to create a small thermal updraft as it mixed with the frigid night air. The thermal caught my pursuer under his left wing just as he was about to piledrive me into the wall and sidewalk. He lost control for just a second, but flying as low as he was, his right wing scraped the street, sending up sparks and slowing him to the point where he lost lift. He rolled to a stop in some brush on the other end of the street.

There was no time to savor that victory. One of the girls- not Alicea, the other one- was charging down the street. She brandished some sort of power gauntlet. I climbed to my feet and ran for the bay.

I almost reached the high reeds that mark the beginning of the dunes, but then I felt a tingle at my back, and then a burst of force that knocked me off my feet. I struggled to my feet, but she zapped me again. I didn't have the good sense to stay down. I mustered the strength to rise again, only to be greeted by the sight of a black-clad figure emerging from the reeds. It was Muscles, the fire escape gymnast, smiling confidently as he watched me labor to catch my breath.

"Hold you fire, Velvet," he called to the girl, "and good job. Make sure Dangerbird isn't beaten up too bad."

He grinned at me. He was a handsome kid, in that fraternity brother way, from what I could see under his mask. He had short blond hair and a square jaw, and his smile was more serene than psychotic. I got a closer look as he pulled me to my feet. His costume was black, save for a few crimson heart-pierced-by-dagger designs on his arms. He was clearly unarmed, save for a small black buckler, the kind riot cops use, which are insulated against heat and electrical weapons.

"Now," he said, "who are you?" He slapped me so hard I almost left my feet. "A local detective?" He slapped me again. "A McCoy fed?"

"Ease up, Travis. I know who he is."

My attacker suddenly looked very irritated. I recognized the voice of the girl talking, although I was too busy checking my mouth for blood to look up at her.

"We are supposed to be using code names," he said wearily as he turned to her.

"I'm sorry- Blackheart," Alicea said with sarcasm as she approached us. "Anyway. He's Randy Stone, a New York reporter and expert on superheroes. He's following us to get documentary footage."

"When did you have a chance to read him?" Travis asked.

"I flashed him when he was tailing me at the Atoll, but that was just verification. I've seen him on the net; he's following us. It doesn't take much deduction."

Having assured myself that all teeth were present and accounted for, I looked up. Alicea wasn't masked. She wore a black turtleneck and black jeans, her hair was pinned back, and she held her scooter helmet in her arms. She looked ready for a drag down Ocean Drive, but not a spree of aggravated assaults.

"What should I do with him?" Travis asked.

I spoke up. "You might want to hear me out."

His eyes narrowed. "Give me a reason."

I tried to size this Travis kid up as best I could through the haze of pain. I saw what he did to the street punks earlier in the night: he was a thug, and a dangerous one. On the other hand, he pulled his punches with me, slapping me when it probably would have been safer for him to throw my body in the bay if I had turned out to be a cop.

"I can give you a chance to tell your story."

He thought for a moment.

Alicea sounded impatient. "Travis, this is no time to be drawing attention to ourselves. "

"This is also no time to be using my real name."

"He's already heard it. He also knows my name and probably Jeremy's, since he's been running all over New York with my credit cards. He knows where we live, too. But all we have to do is say no to him, and we're off the hook. He can't use the footage without a release from us. Unless, of course, he calls the cops and turns us in right now. He won't do that: it would ruin his street props. He'd never get his 'inside story' if other superheroes are afraid he'll turn them in."

Smart girl.

"She's right, Travis," I said, trying to sound strong and confident even though my lips were swelling and my legs were wobbling. "I know a lot about you. All it took was two days and a trace on a credit card. The only reason the authorities haven't sniffed you out is that you aren't that important."

"Yeah," Alicea said, "and I'd like to stay that unimportant."

Travis winced, turning angrily to her.

"You don't want that, do you Travis?" I said. "You want to be important. You want to matter. If you want that, then talk to me."

Sirens became audible from a few blocks away.

"Speaking of the authorities . . ." Alicea said, shifting on her feet nervously.

The other girl ran up to them. "JD is OK to fly," she said. "We need to get out of here, and the bike is three blocks away. Let me have the keys."

Alicea shook her head. "I don't want you going back, Julie. I'll get it and swing around."

Travis thumbed the bridge of his nose in pain ."There," he said to me, "that's all of our names."

"Thank you."

"There is no time, ladies," Travis said. "We go back into the marsh. We'll get the scooter later."

JD meanwhile, couldn't get his engine engaged after a cold stall.

"I can get you out of this in my van," I said.

Travis turned to me. "You would do that?"

"Consider it an act of good will. I ask only that you hear my proposal out in return."

The sirens became louder. "No time to discuss. Everybody in the van," Travis ordered.

"I don't like this," Alicea said.

Travis was already running ahead of me. "Then get caught if you want."

Alicea stewed, but she followed us. In a few moments, I was harboring four fugitives in the back of my van, helping them flee a crime scene. It wasn't the most orthodox method of getting a story, but you can't expect to keep your nose clean when dealing with a story like this. The moment you record a confession without reporting it, you're on shaky ground legally. Nobody at the office would know the shaky details; the kids sure as hell wouldn't spill the beans.

They hid in the back while we passed through the neighborhood they turned into a small war zone. Police were cuffing the victims; all of them apparently were known felons, although the VPA would guarantee that no convictions would stick to them. Travis peeked out the back window, pointing out drug dealers and pimps and thugs who would suffer about 24 hours of justice, thanks to his handiwork.

The coast was clear, and Travis removed his mask and took his place in the passenger's seat beside me. "Hello Randy," he said, shaking my hand firmly. "I'm Blackheart. We're the Goths. We fight crime."

Chapter 3: Errands

The ride home was mostly silent, with the "Goths" scowling at each other and sneaking glances out the window. I tried to make conversation.

"Let me get your code names. It's Blackheart, Velvet, Dangerbird, and . . ."


"Alicea," Alicea finally said.

Travis' jaw hardened. "What happened to Scanner?"

Alicea stared off into the distance. "She died. A rare condition: Corny Codename Syndrome."

"Uh-oh," JD said to Travis. "If that's contagious, you're next." He laughed, alone.

We parked in an alley behind their tenement and the team silently scaled a fire escape to the top floor with me bringing up the rear. They slipped through a propped-open fire door, down a dark hallway of abandoned rooms, and into their apartment, a greasy little flat that stunk of mildew and young bodies and bad housekeeping. Some impressive audio-video equipment was stacked in one corner, but otherwise, all the furniture was junk: a threadbare couch with ground-in dirt and laundry piled on it, a couple of chairs right out of the mission house, all the things you would expect from kids who had to scrounge for everything they had. The place was lit by a fixture with exposed wires and no shade on the bulb, there were cracks in the drywall, and the floorboards creaked of dry rot.

"Is everybody OK?" Travis asked as he switched on the lights. Velvet, or Julianna, the younger girl, unstrapped the weapon from her arm. JD began removing his flight harness. "What about you, D-Bird? How's the shoulder?"

JD rubbed it and smiled his gap-toothed grin. "Nothing to sweat about."

"Good," Travis said, then his mood suddenly changed. He leapt across the room toward his friend, grabbing the much lighter JD by the front of his collar and hoisting him in the air. With a casual toss, JD was across the room, crashing hard into a virtual game unit. Travis advanced toward him. Alicea and Julianna intervened, each grabbing one of Travis' arms, although they didn't really have the strength to hold him back.

"You finally flipped, " JD said.

Travis freed one of his hands and pointed angrily at his friend. "Why the hell were you running around New York with the credit card," he demanded.

"I needed equipment," he pleaded.

"Don't you realize how easily a credit card is to track? We have a New York reporter breathing down our asses now," he said, pointing at me. "Who knows who else is outside the door?"

"What was I supposed to do? You want me to fly, don't you?"

It looked like Travis was going to lunge at JD again, but Alicea stood between them. She stared Travis down, then turned to JD. "You were supposed to take out cash here, then pay for everything in cash. We've been here before, Jeremy. It's not fusion science."

JD sneered. "I did take out cash in town, but I ran low when I hit the city."

Alicea's eyebrows arched. "Ran low? How much of my money did you spend?"

"It ain't just your money."

She flew into a rage. "Why not?" she cried. "When's the last time you worked a day toward making any of it." She dove at JD, and it was Travis' turn to restrain her, hugging her tightly and lifting her off her feet.

JD slipped passed them as Travis planted little kisses on Alicea's forehead to calm her. She wasn't too receptive though: once she composed herself, she rolled her eyes and tugged free of his embrace. "I'm calling the company and reporting the card stolen," she said. "We'll be extra thin until they issue a new one."

"We need cash for Shorty Rock tomorrow," Travis said, protesting her decision.

Alicea glanced at me before turning to him. "We have more exposure than we can handle right now," she said. "We need some deniability if others come looking for us,"

"I don't see what the problem is," JD said, resting an arm on my shoulder. "You said we weren't important enough for the McCoy Units to come after, didn't you?"

I nodded, uncomfortable with having the kid so close to me.

Alicea was already dialing the network to report her card stolen. "JD, this isn't your decision to make, so I don't want to hear shit-else from you."

JD saluted her mockingly, rolled his eyes, and took a bottle of cognac from a shelf.

Travis looked at me intently. "You don't think we'll attract their attention, after the number of hits we pulled tonight?"

I laughed, despite myself. "Hits? If you mean knocking out a few drug corners, then forget about it. The guys you took down will be out of custody as soon as a witness comes forward and claims that superheroes were involved in the attack. Then, VPA will kick in, all the evidence will be inadmissible, and they'll be back on the street. The police will file a nuisance claim against you with the McCoy Units, and that claim will go in a file with 2,000 other claims and sit there until you become a big enough problem to warrant a page on an expense account."

Travis pondered this for a second. He clearly wasn't happy that his little blitz operations didn't rate highly in the cosmic scheme of things. "So you're saying that unless we do something big, we're nobody," he said, sounding just a bit disappointed.

"Not at all," I said, taking a small pile of waiver forms from my breast pocket. "You're TV stars. All you have to do is sign the waivers and allow me to take some documentary footage,"

Alicea looked around. "Who is that speaking? Oh, Mr. Stone, you're still here. Have a good evening, and good night."

I smiled, trying to look confident. "Are you kicking me out?"

"Not as such, but since I refuse to be part of your little documentary, I'm guessing you'll be leaving soon anyway."

"You haven't heard me out . . ."

"I don't have to," she said, standing and turning to me. " I know what this is about. Let's give the audience a cheap thrill. Follow the illegal adventures of the troubled kids. If we're lucky, we'll catch the girls with their tops off. Or maybe they'll die in a bloody car wreck."

I clicked my tongue. "You're awfully good at pre-judging people."

She rested her hands on her hips. "Well, I guess I am. Part of being able to read minds is learning how to guess the way they think. You can convince the guys that this is a chance for glory, but I have no intention of seeing my life edited into a one-hour drama on the net."

She stormed into a bedroom and slammed the door.

"Where's my allen wrench?" JD asked, sifting through audio disks to find the tool. His flight harness was half removed; beneath it was a mesh shirt with openings cut in strategic places. Beneath the shirt a jumble of acid-etchings were visible: winged dragons, demons, hawks, all burned onto his flesh with acids formulated to discolor his skin in different hues. There were also piercings, apparently sewn right into the flesh on his chest.

He caught me looking at him and grinned widely. "It's the only way to fly, buddy. I had the snaps and rods installed. Good looking, and useful too." With the wrench he removed a bolt and dowel from the shoulder straps of his harness. In addition to brass snaps on his chest and back, he had two rods surgically inserted in the skin beneath his shoulder. A chrome bolt protruded from each end of the rod; JD screwed a jeweled stud into the bolts once he was free from the harness. I wondered how the kid ever got through metal detectors.

I turned back to Travis. "Well, you sound like the boss," I said. "What's the call?"

Travis turned to me. "Can we still do it?"

"That depends." I knew I had Travis hooked, but without Alicea's permission, I wouldn't be able to use her image without digitally wiping out her face and disguising her voice. There are always a few blanked images in documentaries like these, but it looks like hell when one of your primary characters has an Eraserface. I could downplay her significance, but at what cost? Her and Travis appeared to be a couple, and a stormy pair at that. Their romance would add texture to the story, but a digital disguise would ruin the effect. What's more, I didn't want to blank out the features of the prettiest girl; it doesn't make for good television.

But I couldn't just walk away. I invested some serious time in hunting down this team. Another 48-hours to find another team, and I would be up against the deadline to get enough footage shot by mid-January. Plus, where else would I find a freak show like JD? The piercings and bolts alone were worth a few ratings points. I told the others that if they all agreed, I would start rolling the next morning.

"This could get me some serious action," JD said as he took a release from my hand.

Travis turned to me, shaking his head in disgust. "He's being funny. That's not what we're about, Randy."

"What are you about?"

He smiled. "We're about making a difference. I want to do this so I can say my piece."

"You'll get your chance."

"That's all I need to hear," he said, taking the waiver from me. "I'll work on Alicea for you, but she gets stubborn. Anyway, she works tomorrow, so we can show you around town a little."

He signed the document.

I pointed to Julianna. She sat dwarfed in a ragged old easy chair, her legs crossed beneath her body. She absently swirled a glass of cognac, examining the liquid as it moved and generally ignoring us. "What about her?"

Travis took another waiver. "Julianna's my sister. She's only 17; I'm her legal guardian. I'll sign for her."

The bedroom door swung open. Alicea scowled at Travis. She must have heard him say that he would sign for his sister. She looked at the little waif in the easy chair. "Julianna? Do you want to be part of this?"

The young girl snapped out of her trance. "What?" she asked. She looked around at all of us in confusion.

"Julianna," Travis said. "We're going to be on TV. It's our big break. We're going to show the world what we're all about."

"Whatever," she replied.

Alicea scowled and shook her head with disgust. "You bastard," she cried, although I don't know if she was talking to me or Travis. Either way, she turned and slammed the door so hard that it echoed through the alley outside.


Do the math with me if you like, or skip this section to get back to the story. This is just a slab of boilerplate that I cleaned up and dropped into the Full Enabled version of the story:

Last year, roughly 7,000 people were convicted of violations of various articles of the Vigilante Prevention Act. That figure is up 0.5% from 2047. Almost ten times as many people were charged with federal felonies in conjunction with the Acts, only to have federal charges dropped or lessened through plea bargaining to less serious offenses. The 75,000 or so criminals in question were responsible for over 200,000 violent crimes, between $5 billion and $50 billion in property damage (whether you believe the claimants or the insurance adjusters), and at least 200 deaths.

Of those charged with VPA federal felonies, over half are males between the ages of 18 and 45. Older males make up another 20%, younger males another 10% (although males under 18 are difficult to count, as they rarely face federal charges and are often charged with lesser offenses for the same crimes that put older perpetrators away). While women comprise only about 20% of the vigilante population, they are in a growth market: nearly all the increase in vigilante crimes over the last five years has come from an increase in the female population.

These statistics tell less than half the story. Experts estimate that for every captured vigilante or other superpowered criminal, between 20 and 25 are never apprehended. There are also thousands who are initially charged with lesser offenses, due to legal expediencies and other factors. As mentioned above, Technical Juveniles, those between 16 and 22 who have not finished their education and are defined to be "partially cognizant" of their responsibilities as citizens, are extremely difficult to convict on federal charges. As a result, states and municipalities often seek quick convictions, usually throwing away the vigilante element of the crime in exchange for a few years in rehab or detention. There appears to be only a slight problem with younger offenders, but the numbers are misleading: one poll suggests that 80% of high school students know someone who owns a proscribed weapon or uses body building drugs.

Of the means of acquiring illegal superpowers, weapon acquisition is about twice as popular as drug abuse, although the ratio is closer to 50-50 with young people. Surgery and other mutilations run an infrequent third. Compressed Fusion Capacitors, usually low or moderate yield units, are the most common power source for illicit weaponry. Despite the fact that possessing any CFC with a greater than minimal output is punishable by as much as twelve years in prison, over 100,000 units have been confiscated from felons, distributors, and warehouses in the last calendar year. Most CFCs are used in conventional blaster weapons, from gauntlets and helmets to full suits with shoulder mounts. Flight packs, a less popular (but not uncommon) item, are also commonly CFC powered.

An anonymous poll of enhanced weaponry users reveal that almost half consider their actions essential for personal protection, while another large percentage admit to actively pursuing vigilante justice in some way, from superhero stunts to more conventional neighborhood watches and the like. The rest of those polled explained their actions variously as "an affirmation of identity," "an adventure/thrill seeking activity," or "a political statement." These poll respondents probably represent the same population that is inevitably prosecuted: most defendants are guilty of acts of vigilante vengeance, not theft or other traditional violent crimes.

Of course, sorting out the difference between well-intentioned, if brutal, acts of vigilante vengeance and outright thuggery is often sticky business, which is one reason that the Vigilante Prevention Acts were passed in the first place. The Vigilante Prevention Acts expressly forbid the formation of any type of neighborhood watch or other community protection group, however benign, as many of these groups are fronts for hostile vigilante bands. These "superhero teams" were initially founded to fight crime, but invariably become bogged down in elaborate turf wars and become more dangerous than the criminal element they seek to contain. Vigilante-on-vigilante violence is still the most likely type of incident to attract the attention of the McCoy Units, the division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms chartered to prevent VPA transgressions.

Establishing the difference between a conventional crime gang with hi-tech weapons and a superhero hit squad is especially difficult when dealing with juvenile and technical juvenile offenders. Kids with no prior records have been known to dispatch lethal force against their enemies over the good name and virtue of a girlfriend. Ordinary fistfights are complicated by the use of body-enhancement drugs, which many kids begin taking to increase their chances of making the football or wrestling teams. Meanwhile, there have been a few cases where high school drug dealers and gangbangers have been too well armed for the local authorities to handle. Parent action groups and other awareness agencies have done an excellent job of revealing the problems in urban schools, but suburban schools and communities often choose, regrettably, to ignore the problem. The risk, of course, is that more affluent youngsters can afford more powerful weaponry, and can inflict it upon a less prepared populace.

Demographics and data only take you so far. Superheroes are criminals; we cannot expect them to tell the truth about themselves until they are under oath, so all the information we have is fairly limited and of questionable accuracy. Police and federal agents have created profiles and archetypes, but in point of fact there are certainly a myriad of personalities and individuals who are drawn to the superhero/vigilante lifestyle. The population is probably as diverse as that of society itself, or at least the fringe element of society. The team I stumbled into fit into no comfortable niche, except perhaps my editor's requirements for age and photogenic qualities. I tend to believe that they represented a hidden populace: misguided young adults clinging to the ledge of poverty, living on the lam from a community within which they don't particularly belong. Perhaps there are hundreds of little superhero cells like this in every city in America, living in old tenements or shanties or refrigerator boxes, blowing their money on chemical muscles and weapons and fighting for some forgotten reason. They could be the next trend, or a dying breed, for all we know. But they're out there; that's for sure.


I slept on the air mattress I kept in the van that night, surrounded by my recording and editing equipment. It was drafty, but it beat sleeping with the cockroaches and spent beers in the apartment. Atlantic City sounds a lot like New York at night; the town treated me to a serenade of sirens and alarms and car stereos all night long. Downright restful. Factor in the shiners Travis gave me and the chafing burns from Julianna's little contraption, the cold, and the noise, and I got maybe two hours of sleep and another eight of wanting to sleep.

Lack of sleep wasn't a problem for the Goths. These kids weren't exactly early risers. It took until about 2:00 before all of them were up and out of bed and ready to hit the streets. All except Alicea, anyway: she was off to work at dawn. The others had been up drinking half the night; I heard Travis arguing with JD on the fire escape long after the corner bar closed. But by mid-afternoon they were all sobered up, dressed in some ratty old jackets and sweatshirts, and ready to hit the street.

"What's on the agenda?" I asked as I joined them. I had spent the morning in the van, rigging my hidden camera so it was ready to follow the team into places where journalists are usually unwelcome. It was a tiny battery-operated, limited acuity camera with a slow frame rate that recorded digital images of moderate quality. I tucked it into the lapel of my trench coat. The floater was also set to follow us when we were on the street.

"Errands," Travis replied. He led JD, Julianna and I through the streets toward a strip far off the path of the tourist trade, a business district dominated by pawn shops and go-go clubs. "We need to visit Shorty Rock, then do some shopping."

"Shorty Rock?" I asked.

"You'll figure it out when we get there. I don't wanna talk about it on the street."

I nodded. "Other than running errands, then, you guys don't do anything during the day. None of you has a job?"

JD stifled a coarse laugh. "Who are you, Alicea?"

The others laughed.

"Alicea's the 9-to-5 type in this operation. If the rest of us were, we would do that instead of . . . working nights," Travis said.

"I work, sometimes," Julianna added. "I work for Alicea . . ."

Travis cut her off. "Alicea sometimes has to hire temps. Julie or one of us will go in and work for a day or two when the team is on the thin. Most of the time, though, we have too many responsibilities."

"Like errands?" I asked.

"Like errands," Travis replied. "And training."

Travis held up his hand as we turned a corner. He was looking at a "gentleman's club" across the street. We're talking about a four-alarm dive here: iron bars and plywood over what once were windows, placards advertising every underground club in the city covering the walls. It was the kind of joint where the girls had no teeth and wouldn't think twice about rolling you if you fell too deep into your drink. Travis watched as a few sleezeballs negotiated with the doorman, turned over some bills, and were allowed inside.

Travis turned to JD. "Do you think they're still turning tricks in there?"

"I sure hope so."

Julianna laughed, but Travis' expression could have burned a hole in JD's face.

"What am I supposed to say?" JD asked. "It's the worst shit hole in town. Are they turning tricks in the back? Hmmm, I wonder . . ."

"Maybe we should do something about it."

"Sure. We'll bust up every strip joint in town."

"Not every one. The one three blocks from our apartment that has losers hanging around out front in the middle of the afternoon." Travis turned to me. "Am I overreacting?"

I shrugged my shoulders. We continued walking up the street.

"Tell you what," JD said. "Let me go in and do some undercover work. I'll give you a full report."

Travis shook his head in disgust. "I must look stupid," he said.

We continued down the main drag until we reached an electronics shop called "Shorty's". The place was no different than the kind you find in every city. The window displayed portables, stereo equipment, virtual toys and games, and other high tech gizmos. Anyone who shops at places like that knows the drill: some of the merchandise is stolen, some of it pawned, none of it came with a guarantee. Mahmoud's Gold Street shop in Manhattan was no different on the outside, and Mahmoud wasn't the only low rent hustler to use the electronics gig as a front for something more lucrative.

"Shorty has diversified interests, to use his lingo," Travis said. "He owns half this block. Don't do any talking, Randy, although I doubt you'll get the chance."

I agreed, as if Travis knew something about this scene that I didn't know. I was exposing pawn brokers like this Shorty Rock back when he was chasing cheerleaders.

No sooner had we entered than the proprietor, a black guy no older than 25, descended upon us. He was indeed short, a few hairs over five feet, and overdressed for the clientele in an Armani suit. He bowed low when we entered, addressing us as if we were royalty.

"Salutations, dear regular guests," he proclaimed in a round, full voice. He looked at me. ". . .And a warm welcome to a new friend. I am Shorty Rock."

"This is Randy," Travis said, pointing to me. "He's cool."

"Well, of course he is," he said, approaching me and tugging at my lapels. I pulled back, unsure if he was suspicious about a camera or just admiring my couture. That's an Alistaire Marshall Signature trench coat he's wearing, and wearing Marshall announces to the world that you are cool. My friend Randy, we carry a wide selection of Marshall coats at my haberdashery just up the road, and our prices are more than competitive."

I thought I'd ask about the off-the-truck discount, but it was better if the kids did the talking.

"We're sure they are," Travis replied, "but we aren't clothes shopping. I need my swipe card, and we need net numbers."

At first, I had guessed Shorty's racket to be superhero hardware: a New Jersey Mahmoud. Shorty turned out to be a forger: fake drivers' licenses and passports, hacked security clearances and net access numbers, and prescription swipe cards. That made sense. Travis seemed too uptight to get his chemical muscles off the street, and spending his nights pummeling would-be suppliers probably kept him from establishing good connections. Instead, he bought forged prescriptions for something less illegal and safer. That explained why Travis didn't bulk up like a gorilla, the way a Rae-Tae addict would.

As for net numbers, it figured that the team needed some privacy if they wanted to talk about their exploits on the net, and all superheroes loved to talk about their exploits on the net. There were newsgroups, sites, and channels all over the net for superheroes and vigilante teams. Kids logged on under stolen access numbers, said their piece, then disappeared before any snoopers could track them down. The sites were illegal, but nobody cared; half the kids who logged on were crackpots or just curious. Still, no superhero would dare enter a site under their real access code: they would be sitting ducks if there were an investigation.

Shorty produced an envelope for Travis. He peeked inside to confirm that it contained an exquisitely forged scannable prescription card. Shorty then began typing into his computer console. "I'm afraid I can't give you top of the line access numbers, my brother, seeing as though you haven't paid for the last round."

Hacked net numbers come in several levels of quality. The best are retired numbers that a hacker quietly reinstated. You can use them for months, the bill goes to someone who has been dead for months, and it takes the providers months to figure out what is going on and shut down the number. The next level down are group access numbers stolen from employees of companies too cheap to provide corporate access to all their personnel. You get a month, maybe two, out of these numbers before an accountant finds the problem and freezes you out. Then, there are the cheap codes, stolen from portables. Your net service will appear on the real owner's account the next time he checks, which could be twenty minutes after he logs on. You have to hope that the number was stolen from someone lazy about keeping up his account, or someone with multiple users on his service, or something, otherwise he can make one call and shut you out a few minutes after you pay for the merchandise.

From the conversation, it sounded like the team was buying cheap numbers.

"Damn it, Shorty, the last batch you gave us lasted a week," Travis said as Shorty checked his inventory for active codes. "I don't want to have to scale down my net time to make them last."

Shorty continued working. "Again, my deepest regrets. But you get what you pay for, and as you have not paid for anything, it's the best I can do. Here." He punched a series of keys, transferring an access code from his inventory to another console near Travis. "Check out the merchandise, my friend."

"I think I will," Travis said, seating himself before the computer.

JD looked around at the hi-tech equipment crowded onto the shelves behind the counter. "Business is booming," he said absently.

"Always," Shorty replied, smiling as he worked. "It's all a young entrepreneur like myself can do to keep up with his many interests."

"And how is business downstairs?"

Shorty's smile widened. "You wanna see?" he said, looking up from his work.

We left Travis to examine the network access codes. We left the shop, descending a stairway that led below street level. Shorty stopped us at the bottom of the stairs.

"JD, my friend, I guess you know that I'm not as paid as I'd like to be," he whispered, his tone suddenly serious.

"You know we're in the thin," JD replied.

"You are always in the thin. Now, the prescriptions are no problem. They only take a minute, and I don't wanna separate muscle man from his dose. Those guys can get funny."

"Not my brother," Julianna said.

Shorty's eyes softened as he turned to Julianna. "Maybe you don't see the way your brother looks at me, little lady. Shorty didn't get this far by provoking the wrong characters. That's why I've been extending credit to you people. But I'm a businessman, and my patience is wearing thin."

"We're doing what we can, Shorty. I just maxed out the old lady's credit card on other stuff. Travis, he doesn't like to accept money for some of the things we do. Otherwise. We wouldn't be so damn thin."

Shorty rolled his eyes. "Being a good neighbor isn't always being a good businessman. I don't have time for charity cases."

"Hold out a little longer. If it gets too tight, we'll work something out."

Shorty looked apprehensive. He stared all of us down, then erupted with a nervous laugh. "Hell, JD, you are good people. I'm sure we'll make some arrangements. Let's have a drink."

The lounge beneath Shorty's store was a cross between a tavern and a shooting gallery. There was no obvious drug-taking going on, but the handful of patrons were sprawled across couches and appeared more relaxed than alcohol can get a person. They were all kids, younger than Travis, maybe as young as Julianna. They were runaways and street punks, a half-step down the ladder from the Goths, screwed up kids with nothing better to do than dose and space all day. It looked like some of them slept there. Couches, futons, and beanbags dominated the décor. A bartender manned a small service area in a dark corner. A large bay window allowed a view of the adjoining room.

"Four cognacs," Shorty announced to his bartender.

"Three," I said, correcting him. He smiled suspiciously at me.

Julianna watched the action through the bay window. Inside was an etching parlor. A muscular black kid no more than seventeen years old was in the chair, stripped to his boxers. The artist plied his trade on the kid's inner thigh, applying a yin-yang symbol to his flesh.

Julianna nibbled on her thumbnail as she watched the artist at work. Shorty slipped in close to her and offered her a drink. "You like what you see?" he asked.

She smiled shyly. "I like the art."

"Hey, Shorty," JD interrupted. "Do you think Hammer can do some more work on me?"

JD stepped into their line of sight, peeling off his sweatshirt to reveal the artwork that covered his body.

"Out of the way," Julianna said, waiving him off.

JD turned to face the window. "What's that kid got that I haven't?"


"Yeah, JD," Shorty added. "Hammer said no more work for you until you gain some weight. He's out of room to operate."

"Sure he did," JD said, slipping away.

Shorty turned his attention to Julianna. "If you would like, we could arrange an appointment, and you can get some art like that."

"I already have one," Julianna replied. She pulled up her hair with one hand, lowering the collar of her sweatshirt with the other. The diminutive Shorty actually had to crane his neck to see the gothic "G", the team's trademark, burned just to the left of the young girl's bra strap.

Shorty took the opportunity to touch Julianna's back, running his fingers along the outline of the design. "Very nice," he said. "But nearly invisible below the hairline."

Julianna dropped her hair over the etching. "Alicea says not to get art someplace where it can't be covered when you want to, but I want to get others."

"I hear you. Not everyone wants to go to the extremes that JD does, of course, but a few adornments can enhance a woman's beauty greatly. For example," he slipped his finger beneath Julianna's sweatshirt, lifting it a few inches to reveal her navel. "A small ring around the belly button can be decorative and affordable." He ran a finger gently along her belly. "A lady with a lovely body like yours should draw attention to how trim she is."

Julianna didn't appear to mind the attention; she just smiled self-consciously as Shorty turned her to face him. "Then, of course, we have to think about summer," he continued, tugging at the pocket of her jeans until they rode low on her hips. "Something feminine on the upper thigh, near the bikini line, is always fashionable. I recommend a rose, or a butterfly, but we have a selection of a few hundred designs."

Shorty moved closer, his finger about to go somewhere it didn't belong. A second later, he was across the room, lying prone on the floor. Travis stood beside his sister, his face pink with rage. The bartender lit from his station, brandishing a chair by its legs. He was a big guy, bigger than Travis, but Travis drew in close, riddling the man's face with jabs before taking his arm and flipping him onto the floor. A patron stood to intervene, took a foot between his ribs, and fell to the floor. Hammer opened the door from the etching parlor, watched for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and returned to the yin-yang.

Travis loomed over Shorty, who was on the floor spitting and searching his saliva for blood. "What the hell were you doing," he demanded, still seething with anger.

Shorty waived his arms. "It's all cool, man, it's all cool."

"It ain't fucking cool. Don't ever touch my sister again. She's seventeen years old, you piece of shit."

JD crept up behind Travis and rested an arm on his shoulder. Travis whirled to strike, stopping himself when he saw his friend.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," he said.

Shorty tried to stand, then doubled over in pain. "No problem, my brother. Sorry. Real sorry."

"You are fucking sorry," Travis said, picking up the chair the bartended tried to use on him. He lifted the chair high over his head, but JD grabbed it before Travis could lower it on his victim.

"Let's get out of here," JD repeated.

Travis gritted his teeth, then tossed the stool into a corner. "C'mon," he said, grabbing his sister, who had stood watching the scene in stunned silence.


We stormed out of Shorty's speakeasy, Travis leading the way. He was seething; his breathing was labored and his fists were clenched as crossed the street and led the team toward the boardwalk. He spoke to no one, and the others stayed a few strides behind him. He was teetering on the edge of losing control, and I was surprised that he didn't go totally off. Addicts like him are known to blow a gasket on the slightest provocation, and many don't settle down until they're dragged away with cuffs on their ankles and sedatives in their bloodstream. A Phinny-Bar addict doesn't distinguish friend from foe once his nostrils are flaring, and Rae-Rage has left many a bystander in the hospital. By those standards, Travis was a Quaker.

"What the hell was that in there?" he finally said, turning and snapping at the others. The levee and the boardwalk loomed ahead of us; winter winds from the ocean rippled our clothes. He pointed a finger at his sister. "What were you doing?"

Julianna flinched as her brother pointed at her. Tears welled up as she spoke. "You . . . embarrassed me."

He threw up his hands. "Embarrassed you? In front of who? Shorty Rock? The punks who hang around that dive looking for a fix? You embarrassed me, letting trash like that touch you."

"I can take care of myself," she cried, turning his back on him.

Travis stewed for a moment, then popped JD in the ribs with the back of his hand. "What about you? I expect you to back me up on something like that."

JD rubbed the tender spot Travis just slapped. "I was keeping an eye on our interests."

"What the hell does that mean?"

JD shook his head like he was tired of explaining himself. "You shouldn't have gone off on Shorty like that,"

Travis turned to him. "Why not? Since when are you telling me to back off? Most of the time, you're the one that goes off half-lit and half-assed."

"Well, I ain't half-lit. I got about two sips of my drink before you came in saucin' people. And it's different when we're jamming on the street."


JD rolled his eyes. "Don't be stupid. You know the fucking difference. Shorty's the only person we can get any kind of credit from. We need some friends in this town."

Travis started to speak, then realized that JD was right. He shook his head. "Bullshit," he said. He kicked the guardrail beside him, first absently, then several times with all he had. "Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!" he repeated, kicking the metal rail each time until it bent under the force of his blows.

"That guardrail won't give us any more trouble," JD said.

"I'm sick, JD. I don't like having to deal like garbage like Shorty. I don't wanna make Julie or Alicea go anywhere near him. I hate playing by their rules to get . . ." he clutched the envelope that held his phony prescription card. His voice cracked. ". . . to get what I need. It's like dealing with the devil."

Travis turned to me, looking for some validation. I looked away. These were the mighty Goths, the superheroes trying to make a difference, brutalizing two-bit hustlers after begging them for illegal merchandise.

"Whatever," he continued. "I'm off to pay the piper. What do we need?"

"Cigarettes," Julianna said.

"Yeah," JD added, "and diet pills. I must be up around 130: I almost pulled myself out of the saddle last night."

"Great. We'll be broke for dinner again. Meet me at the Steel Pier for a few drills."

JD nodded, and Travis jogged off. JD leaned against the rail Travis had just abused, staring into space for a moment, and then at me. "This is the way it is," he said.

I asked him what he meant.

"This is it. This is how we do it." He held up his arms, as if he were displaying his world for me. "This is life,"

I smiled. "It's nothing I haven't seen before," I said.

JD shook his head and laughed. "I feel sorry for you."

Julianna propped herself on the rail beside him. They seemed content to just sit there while Travis went shopping for drugs and cigarettes. It was quite a contrast from the kinetic kids who attacked me with wings and blasters the night before. Their masks came off, and they turned into lazy kids hanging out near the boardwalk, waiting for something to happen.

"It seems like you guys fight with each other a lot. Do all of you ever agree on anything?" I asked, breaking the silence.

JD winced. "I guess on a day like this, we all agree that it's cold as hell. Otherwise, no. We never agree."

Julianna took her last cigarette from a pocket. Cupping her hands against the wind, she lit it and took a long drag. "I don't think it's that cold," she said.


They practiced on the beach after reconvening at the old ruin of The Steel Pier. They didn't practice like the Jersey City team, thankfully. There was no full armor, no heavy contact, and no airborne maneuvers. Travis taught the others a few martial arts moves: sweep kicks, flips, techniques for dealing with a bigger, stronger attacker. Wiry little JD got the hang of things quickly, but Julianna was slow and sloppy, knocking herself over when she tried to flip her brother. Calisthenics were interrupted for a cigarette break, which somehow seemed appropriate. Then they ran through some drills, with Travis drawing up attack maneuvers in the sand. It was idyllic: a bunch of young people running and tussling in the sand. For a moment, it was easy to forget how violent their lives were.

Travis spoke with me during a break. "Our best techniques are hit-and-run strategies," he explained. "We don't have the firepower to just jam face-to-face. Julianna's gauntlet is superconductor powered, so it runs out of juice pretty quickly. JD can't do much when he hits the ground. Luckily, we're smart and fast."

"What about Alicea?" I asked.

He shook his head. "She's no good in a fight. But she can read minds, which is just about the most amazing thing in the world."

I rubbed my hands for warmth. "Does she really read minds, or is she just a gleaner?"

That question earned me a dirty look. "You saying she's a con artist?"

I backed off. "Gleaners aren't con artists. Well, some of them are, but most of them are just talented kids who can read facial expressions, notice changes in breathing patterns, that sort of thing. I mean, forgive me for being a skeptic, but the only confirmed cases of telepaths I've ever heard of are autistic savants."

Travis scowled. "She's the real thing, Randy. She can tell you what you had for breakfast last Tuesday. It's a long story how she got that way, but it's for real. Maybe she'll tell you about it, after she warms up to you."

I jammed my hands into my pockets. "I wouldn't hold my breath."

"Ah, she gets used to people. She got used to me."

We watched the others duck under the pier to light their cigarettes. JD placed one in his mouth, but the wind blew it away. He took out another cigarette, and the same thing happened. He cursed loud enough for us to hear him over the waves. Travis laughed heartily.

"You've calmed down," I said to him.

"Yeah," he said. "Having to deal with people like Shorty brings out the worst in me."

"Then why do you do it?"

"I need the chemicals, and I won't buy off the street."

"I meant: why bother with any of this? The superhero gig, the danger, the work for no pay. Why do you do it?"

Travis smiled coyly. "You want the story from the top?" he asked.


Travis and Julianna Hood were ordinary kids from the Philly suburbs. Jeremy David "JD" Orczykowski was Travis' best buddy in high school. The Hoods weren't troublemakers, and while JD had a few scrapes with the law, there was nothing unusual about their lives until about six years ago.

Then came the crisis of 2042. Some home video jockey forged footage of four McCoy agents mercilessly beating a motorist who had already surrendered. The video led off every newscast in the country. The tape was a hoax, but no one knew it at the time, not even the feds, who turned over four agents for trial. They were quickly acquitted, which touched off violence in several major cities. According to Travis, his father was driving his mother home from work when some rioters began popping caps at everyone on the freeway. His parents weren't shot, but the driver of the car in front of them was, and the Hoods were killed in the resulting accident.

Travis called the moment of his parents' death his "moment of truth."

"I look back on the kid I was, Randy," he said. "When mom and dad were living, everything was handed to us. Julianna and I were spoiled. I hate the kid I was." An elderly aunt took care of the family, but Travis began to feel the need to do more with his life than complete high school and find a career. "My parents death served a purpose. It woke me up. It reminded me that there's a need for heroes in this world."

Always an athlete, Travis acquired a fake prescription for deodrine from a contact of JD's. Deodrine, a less-powerful drug than the more popular Rae-Tae, appealed to Travis because it was one of the few performance-enhancing chemicals to improve tendon and ligament strength along with muscle mass. As it was primarily used to rehabilitate severe injuries, forged prescriptions were not hard to come by. He began to take the drug, quitting sports teams at his high school to avoid drug tests and suspicion. "I had this idea that I could become a great crime fighter. This was at the point when we still thought the tapes of the McCoy brutality were real. They turned out to be a hoax, but does it matter? It could have been real. It could happen every day and we would never know. And, thanks to anti-vigilante laws, we wouldn't be able to do much if it was happening."

At 16, Travis was involved in his first altercation. A group of male students were posting naked images of a female student on the net. The school's administration punished the kids, but the pictures had circulated the school, and they always showed up a few days later at a new site. When rumors circulated back to Travis, he took action.

"I might have overreacted," Travis admitted. He and JD (who was yet to acquire a flight suit) jumped four older students in the school parking lot. Two of the students sustained concussions; a third needed to have his mouth wired shut for an entire semester. The fourth nearly bled to death after Travis threw him through the windshield of his car. Travis and JD were sent to an alternative school.

"People thought it was just about the pictures of that girl," Travis explained. "These four guys were really a rape gang. They'd slip girls roofies and stuff at parties. They were notorious throughout the school, but they had influential parents. So the school made them out to be victims, while we wound up in boot camp."

Alternative school was the last stop for JD, who dropped out at 18 and, with Travis' support, began experimenting with flight harnesses. Travis returned to his regular school after one year. Six months before graduation, his aunt died. Rather than bringing Julianna to live with relatives in Pittsburgh, Travis, now 18, declared himself his sister's legal guardian. Julianna and their relatives reluctantly agreed, and Travis dropped out of school to take a full-time job.

"From that point on, creating a superhero team was my ambition. That was all I worked for." While he did complete his education at night school, Travis was unsuited for regular employment. He lost several jobs, often accusing fellow workers of theft or insubordination, sometimes accosting them. At his behest, Julianna began dabbling with weapons. Several incidents landed her in alternative school. The day Julianna turned 16, she dropped out of school with her brother's blessing.

"We didn't have much direction back then. We were working, living out in the burbs, not moving ahead with our plans like we should have. Oh, we came up with our nicknames, the first versions of our costumes, and stuff like that, but we didn't see much action. That changed when we met Alicea."

Alicea met the others just two years ago, just after Julianna left school. She was a college student, unhappy with her relationship with her parents and eager to make something more of herself. "She was like me: she had too much handed to her. Her dad always tried to keep her under his thumb, and her home life was crazy. Yet she had this rare ability she was just dying to use." She and Travis fell in love, they moved to Atlantic City, and the team began fighting crime. They've lived that way ever since, moving every few months, quickly using up the money from the Hood's home on expensive hardware.


And that's how it all happened. At least, according to Travis.

. "Don't let him snow you," JD said. He and Julianna joined us half way through Travis' story, but didn't speak up after Travis left to run wind-sprints along the water's edge.

I asked him to tell me what was inaccurate about the story.

"Julianna, did your folks die in a car accident?"

Julianna propped herself against a pylon and lit a cigarette. "No. Travis always tells the story that way. Dad died when we were little. Mom had a brain tumor."

"Aunt Ellen did live with them while their mom was in the hospital," JD explained. When Mrs. Hood died, Travis was old enough to be independent. Aunt Ellen was supposed to be Julianna's guardian, legally, but things didn't work out."

"Aunt Ellen had boyfriends," Julianna said cryptically.

"Yeah. One of them wound up with his head in the car door for doing what Shorty Rock just did to you."

"Why does Travis lie?" I asked.

JD lit a cigarette, blowing smoke through his teeth with a slight whistle. "Travis likes exaggeration, and he loves drama. The tumor just lacks zing."

"If his parents weren't killed as a result of the riots, why did he want to become a superhero?"

"He always wanted that," Julianna said. "Since we were little kids. Since I can remember."

"That's the truth," JD said. "I used to be the one who looked out for him, before he pumped up. Hell, we've been friends since my second year of fourth grade. Long before his mom died, he talked about 'making a difference' and 'fighting for the little guy.'"

"What did you think of that?" I asked JD.

"It was an excuse to jam, to kick some ass. Those guys with the nudie picture he told you about, they had it coming. Oh, they weren't a rape gang, that's just Travis exaggerating, but they were jerks. He and I had some fun saucing guys we didn't like, but Travis always had to make sure it had a moral: every horny guy was a rapist, every kid with a blunt was a drug lord. Here in the city, it's easier to find the real thing."

I nodded. "What about you?" I asked Julianna.

She shrugged her shoulders. "Nobody liked me much in school anyway."

That was all she had to say on the matter.

And the love affair with Alicea? JD listed the parts that were true. "We did meet at a party. She was a little college rebel. She would do anything to piss her dad off. That's why she started running with Travis: she knew it would kill her dad if she got into this life. Travis did fall in love with her. They have sex a lot. Happily ever after? You aren't blind, are you Randy?"

Nah, I wasn't blind. I could see that everybody had a story to tell: Travis had his, JD his, and I had mine to tell 20 million viewers. But while Travis' story had drama and JD's had realism, mine just didn't have any focus. The Goths looked good on camera, but I needed more than bar room brawls and tussles on the beach if I wanted to keep the viewers' attention. I had a feeling that the missing piece was Alicea, the story's absent center. A telepath working the streets off-boardwalk in Atlantic City, all in the name of love? It didn't add up; I needed her side of the story. Without her cooperation, my documentary was going nowhere.

Chapter 4: Awkward moments

That night, I patrolled with the team. I gave JD the minicam, against my better judgement, and let Travis ride with me and my second camera in the van. We followed the girls on the scooter through the same streets where the team had gone on a spree last night.

"It's nice to have a ride for once," Travis said as he looked out the window. "Sometimes, I take the bike out, but most of the time, I have to run wherever we go."

I nodded. We were just driving around in circles. Not much was going on.

"There's about six blocks around our apartment that we keep as safe zones. Nobody tries anything there, because we hit them so hard. We've branched out into this neighborhood. There have been a lot of gang wars here; I'm trying to maintain some kind of order. Last night we had some success. Look how quiet it is."

The streets were mostly empty, but sub-zero temperatures probably had as much to do with it as fear of the Goths.

I signaled to make a left turn, basically for a change of scene: one ghetto street traded for another. But Travis stopped me: "We don't go bayside in this part of town."

I asked him why not.

"That's Black Street Herd territory. They keep the peace on the streets."

It figured that Atlantic City was a big enough town to have a Black Street Herd chapter. Part gang, part community service organization, the Herd was in every major city, doing what vigilantes used to do before they changed the laws.

"We've jammed with the Herd a few times," Travis explained. "Just misunderstandings, you understand: they're a righteous mob. There's about 100 of them and four of us, so we use common sense when it come to their territory."

We steered wide of that part of town, but there were plenty of drug corners and seedy drags to choose from without having to step on the toes of the Black Street Herd. Still, we came up empty.

"I don't think we have any action here tonight. Let me call JD."

Travis reached for his portable phone, but I explained to him that the minicam had a built in portable. We pulled into a parking lot, where I showed him how to use the telecommunications console in the van.

"This rocks," he said, placing a headset over his head. "Come in Dangerbird!"

"Over and out, Roger Wilco, and all that happy shit," JD replied, but the video wasn't of JD, but of a high-rise window about 100 feet away. "Randy, which one is zoom?"

"The one that says 'zoom' in big letters," I said.

He must have found it, because the window closed in, and we could see a woman dancing alone by the window. "She's been dancing like that for 20 minutes," JD said. "She must have dosed on something strong: N10City, maybe. Bet she's got company coming."

Travis cocked his head suspiciously. "You been drinking?"

"God damn, Travis, I mean Blackheart," JD stammered. The dancing girl drifted out of focus. "I just been pullin' on the Christian Brothers wine, which is all the buck in my pocket got me. It's like kissing your sister. Not your sister, Travis. My sister, if I had one."

Travis pressed his fingers into his temples. "It's got you all bent," he said.

"Shit, Travis, I need something. You try flying when it's five degrees out."

Travis rolled his eyes beneath his mask. "Listen. The Ocean Park area is quiet. I guess you haven't found any action."

The camera focused again on the dancing girl "Just what you're looking at."

Travis portable rang. The girls had ridden around the block a few more times, then parked next to us.

"Are you guys having fun in there?" Alicea asked. "We're freezing."

Travis waved out the front window. I jacked the telephone into the console. Now we were all on conference call.

"Just figuring out where to go next," Travis said.

"Someplace indoors," Alicea suggested.

"Perfect. We'll hit that strip joint on Pacific." He meant the place that we passed that afternoon.

Alicea was irate. "I don't want to hit a strip club. Neither does Julianna."

"Give up on that damn place," JD said.

Travis' jaw hardened. "Find me someplace better."

"Travis, maybe you don't know what it's like to fly on a night like this. I'm next to a heating unit on a roof just trying to thaw out."

Travis thought for a minute. "What about the motels on the pike? Lots of girls turning tricks out there."

Alicea sighed. "There he goes with the prostitutes again. Do you have some urge to hit women?"

"No," Travis said, "but I'm getting one."

"Cute. I'm taking Julie home."

"Woah, check this out," JD said.

The camera pulled away from the dancing girl to the front door of her apartment. Not one but two guys, blackjack dealer types, poured through the entrance, a bottle of booze in each arm. The dancing girl didn't stop dancing; she swayed right up to the suitors, throwing an arm around each one. "That does it," JD said, "I know where I'm going."

Travis and Alicea exchanged knowing glances. "JD?" Travis said cautiously.

"I'm firin' up engines and getting out of this Ice Age. Three's company over there, man, and four's a party. You guys all get killed. I'm gonna have some fun."

The camera feed cut out. JD had made up his mind. Travis pointed to the ignition, and I started the van. Everybody must have had the same idea. Alicea sprinted back to the scooter, took the seat on a leap, and cut off two cars pulling into traffic. I followed her as best I could.

Travis tried to reason with JD over the headset. "JD, man, we got business to do."

JD's response was audio-only. Static crackled beneath his angry words. "Shit, there ain't nothing going on. Go the hell home and leave me alone!"

Travis looked up at me, a little nervously. "JD, we have company."

JD knew he was talking about me. "Damn, Travis, this is the only action Randy's gonna see around that house, and you know it."

Travis ripped off the headset and slammed it against the dashboard. I followed the girls as best I could; they were weaving through traffic and ignoring lights, and that's easier to do in a little scooter than in a van full of video equipment. Travis tripping next to me didn't help my concentration. "Damn him!" he cried, kicking the passenger door and leaving a dent. "How dare he throw that in my face! How dare he!"

One day of shooting, and already the fly boy was going AWOL, and Travis was more concerned about insults than God-knows-what JD would do when he got to that apartment.

They found the apartment. We double-parked outside, all of us searching for the suspicious window. "It doesn't look like he crashed in," Travis said, still growling.

Alicea studied the building across the street, the one JD perched on when we were talking to him. "It looks about five stories high," she said. "It had to be the fourth, fifth, maybe sixth floors."

Travis removed his mask and tossed his buckler back in the van. He motioned for his sister to give him a sweatshirt. He pulled it over his costume; suddenly, he wasn't a superhero anymore. "I'll take care of this with a low profile. I'll start on the third floor, then follow the shouting," he said. "The rest of you get out of sight."

Alicea didn't have to be told twice. She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm taking Julie home," she said. Then she sneered at me. "You boys play nice."

Time was wasting, and following Travis up the stairs was a month's worth of exercise in my book. We listened at each landing for evidence that a pierced, gap-toothed, mutilated street punk in a stainless-steel flight suit had crossed paths with trouble.

We found it on the fifth floor, where the shouts in the hallway were shaking the doorframes. One of the card dealers had his shirt off- JD came calling at the wrong moment- and the guy looked like a match for Travis. The other guy was shoving JD around, with JD giving almost as good as he got. It hadn't come to real blows yet, but it did as soon as Travis arrived.

I got the whole thing on tape. Travis drop-kicked one guy, swept the other, and had them both on the ground in two seconds. He was already on his feet when they looked up, and they thought better of engaging him. The dancer, all hopped up on whatever turned her on, watched with detached interest, shooting Travis a provocative glance when he felled her cabal of admirers.


We rode home in silence. Both Travis and JD stewed silently. They didn't have to tell me that this sort of thing happened all the time. I could tell by the way the team scrambled when JD went off, and by the way the two of them didn't acknowledge each other on the drive home, like they had already had the argument. JD muttered a defense or two: " . . . It was my business, not yours . . . You ain't my fuckin' father; I can get laid when I want to . . .". A look from Travis was all it took to silence him.

We returned to the apartment, and JD started shedding his equipment in the middle of the floor. I prepared to shoot the squabble that was about to begin, mounting my minicam on its floater and adjusting the program. It hovered across the room to catch Travis pounding shots of whiskey over the kitchen sink, but Alicea stood in the way. A ruined shot: since Alicea refused to appear in the story, I would have to erase her features, and the whole thing would look ridiculous. JD stretched his arms and felt for bruises between the tattooed designs on his shoulders, but Alicea stepped in the way of that shot, too. The camera turned for a reaction shot of Julianna, who sat on the floor in the corner with her arms wrapped around her knees. But there was Alicea again.

"I can keep this up all night," she said.

She snatched the floater out of the air, turned off the camera and pressed it against my chest. "We have some dignity and privacy around here. I have some things to say, and I don't want you to hear them."

I tried to defend myself. "You have my word that I won't use . . ."

She tucked the camera under my arm. "Goodbye, Randy."

I gave up and left. They started fighting before the door slammed behind me. Staying to listen in the corridor crossed my mind, but I couldn't use any of it, and it didn't take a genius to fill in the pieces. Travis could give speeches about "making a difference," but these kids didn't see much value in anything, their friendship least of all.

So I didn't catch any footage of the fight, except for some shouting that was audible in the back alley and a few images of silhouettes captured against the blinds beside the fire exit. The documentary isn't missing much, I thought, and if Alicea kept imposing censorship on anything she didn't want me to see, there wouldn't be any documentary.


After JD's walk on the wild side, I realized that there was no way to make this story work without Alicea' cooperation. It wasn't just a matter of editing around her and blocking out her face. She could drag the whole operation to a standstill. If she tried to keep the team inactive or slow them down while I was there, I could wind up without enough footage to make an interesting hour of Television.

I decided that the best way to get Alicea in my corner was to get her away from the others. Out of the apartment, away from the pressures of the team, she might feel comfortable opening up. Then I thought about what Travis did to Shorty Rock: would he think I was moving in on his girlfriend and kill me? He wouldn't if he didn't find out. It was just a matter of getting her to agree to talk to me at all.

Things were calmer the following night. The team didn't patrol; JD disappeared, while Travis and Julianna blasted plug music, cruised the net, and drank. When Alicea slipped out onto the fire escape for a quiet moment, I decided to take a chance.

"Knock, knock," I said as I stepped out the kitchen door and into the icy evening.

Alicea didn't look up. She slurped her drink and stared over the alley and across the roof of the adjacent building. "You're still here?" She asked.

"You keep asking me that."

"And you keep being here. Why?"

I sat beside her. She still did not look at me. "I'm wasting my time here if you aren't willing to play along. I want you to be part of the documentary, and I want to interview you privately. I think your boyfriend will agree to allow me to take you to the boardwalk, as long as we stay six feet apart and keep one foot on the floor at all times."

She chuckled into her glass. "Great," she said with sarcasm. "I thought you would have given up on this documentary by now."

"And why is that?"

"I though after a day or so of this you would figure out that we're not what you want. You wanted wild and crazy teens, didn't you? Sexy, troubled kids tempting death for fun and profit and thrills. Non-stop drinking and drugs and action. Well, we're not teens, except for Julie. As for the sex and action, JD tried his best to accommodate you, but we stopped him. We can't even get casual nihilism right, for Chrissakes; we develop a conscience just when things get hot. We can't hope to be as entertaining as you want."

"Actually, I want a true story. I want to show the superhero scene for what it really is, even if that means documenting a few awkward moments."

"All you've seen so far are 'awkward moments'. That's all we have: one awkward moment after another." She finally turned to me, throwing her hair back from her eyes. "Save the crap about 'truth' and 'reality' for snowing Travis. I've been inside your head. I know what you came for. You'll cut down all the video you've been gathering to make us look like strung-out losers."

That ticked me off. Everybody has integrity in this world except the media. Drunk kids with no lives in ghetto flophouses get to be self-righteous with you. "I'll edit this video to represent what I've seen. That may turn out to make everyone look like strung-out losers. I don't know: if all you people do is hang around head shops all day picking fights and get drunk and cruise for trouble every night, I'll have a hard time making you look like anything else. Have you looked around? How am I supposed to edit the footage?"

She snapped back. "Edit it all onto the floor and go away. Find some New York gang to follow around. I don't need a video document of the way we live." She turned her whole body away from me, leaning her arms against the railing and tossing back her hair.

"That's what this is about," I said, suddenly figuring her out. "You aren't afraid of getting caught. You're afraid of being embarrassed."

She shook her head and turned away, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "Who cares what I'm afraid of? Travis sure doesn't."

"I do."

She turned to me, questioning me with her eyes..

"I do. One thing I expected when I took this job was that I would find a team where all the members would be excited about being on the net. Everybody likes to see themselves on the screen, after all. And most kids devote their lives to this stuff; it's not that often that I run into someone in the life as reluctant as you are. When you guys agreed to do this, I knew there was some friction, but I thought you were just afraid I would dime you to the McCoy units."

She waved the thought off. "That's just what I said to dissuade Travis. You have to know how to speak his language. Once you put those stars in his eyes, the only way I could try to talk him out of this was to make him feel threatened."

"Now I know that, " said, sitting beside her. "I realize that you're opposed to this philosophically, and I need your permission to continue taping. If you tell me right now that you won't agree, I'll pack my cameras and leave tonight."

She looked deeply into my eyes.

"You know why I'm out here?" she asked.

I became aware of how cold it was. The wind stabbed at my face. My body shivered beneath a lined trench coat, and Alicea wore nothing but a sweater. "To be alone?"

She nodded, taking a long, slow drink. "Yeah, but if I'm willing to sit out here and freeze to death, I must really need to get away from something. Don't you agree?"

I told her that I did.

"Travis keeps bragging about what he did to Shorty Rock, like beating up a five-foot tall hustler is an accomplishment. He wants me to be proud of him for protecting Julianna . . ."

She paused, her voice trailing off. She looked into my eyes again. I wondered if she was trying to read my mind.

"I'm not," she said, rather ironically. "Reading can be tiring after a long day. I don't need to read minds to know if someone's being honest with me. Old fashioned woman's intuition does that job nicely."

She turned back to the alley and sipped her drink. "Do your damn documentary, Randy," she said. "I'll be reasonably cooperative. And I'll do the interview."


I met her for lunch. She worked at a garment warehouse right beside the Atoll tunnel entrance. Assistant production manager: a good wage to live on if you don't have three full-grown dependants. Doing the interview on the Atoll was out of the question, as cameras were forbidden. We settled on a boardwalk restaurant inside one of the old casinos. We found a booth in the back, far from curious eyes, where Alicea could sit dwarfed by the overstuffed cushions, her legs drawn up beneath her arms and the Travis-sized sweatshirt she wore. The place was dark, with just enough light for recording. I programmed the floater to fly in a random pattern, taking close-ups and wide shots alternately, aiming for that grainy, unpolished, late 20th century look.

The camera rolled, and I tried to make her feel comfortable: no mean feat with the floater whizzing around her head. I asked her about her favorite ice cream flavors, her favorite net shows: just some chit-chat to get her smiling. Then I began the interview in earnest:

ME: The first thing I noticed when I began working with your team is that you, personally, don't have a costume.

ALICEA: (Hugging her legs a bit tighter). Oh, well, that's because I'm sorta. . . between costumes right now. I had a little black spandex thing, which I guess was a typical superhero uniform, but I gained a little weight, and I never really was comfortable in it.

ME: So the others fight crime in costume, but you don't. Doesn't that make you feel a little out of place?

ALICEA: Maybe a little. I improvise sometimes, wearing a black sweatshirt or a hockey sweater or something. Occasionally, I'll go out on a job wearing bib overalls, a tee shirt, and a baseball cap. (Laughing) Travis hates that. He calls it the 'shit-kicker' costume.

ME: Tell me about your relationship with Travis.

ALICEA: Boy, it didn't take us long to end up there, did it? (Looking around the room). Travis and I dated. . . off and on. . . for about a year, from when I was in college until about last year. We still get together from time to time; I guess I could be a little stronger when it comes to that. Ideally, we should be far away from each other right now, healing wounds, growing up, learning to be our own people. . . In reality, I don't see that happening any time soon.

ME: Why?

ALICEA: Because emotionally, we have a pretty well-established co-dependency happening. He relies on me financially, and for stability, and for validation of this lifestyle he's chosen. And sex, when neither of us can manage to get anyone else and we can't stand being without it. Meanwhile, I wouldn't know how to live life without the rest of the team turning to me for life's necessities and then ignoring me when I try to have my say in matters.

ME: You sound bitter.

ALICEA: Call it resigned. If something besides my own weakness was forcing me to stay, then I might be bitter.

ME: What really keeps you here?

ALICEA: (after a long pause). You ask a lot of the questions that I ask myself. (Laughs). On Monday, I might tell myself that I believe Travis and his high-minded malarkey about 'making a difference.' On Tuesday, I kid myself into thinking that I really love Travis, and that our lives are part of some doomed tragedy that I'm just destined to play out. I get disgusted with myself when I think like that, so by Wednesday I decide that I'm going to leave as soon as I can save enough to put a month down on any closet I can find. By Thursday, I'm telling myself that no one will look after Julianna if I leave, so its my job to protect her from her misguided brother and his loser friend. That gets me to the weekend. On Friday night, the thought dawns on me that I'm too lazy and too much of a coward to do what I have to do. That thought doesn't sit well in my belly, so I drown it with whatever's handy. A good hangover will scare the demons away until Sunday night, at which time I just clutch my pillow and prepare to start the cycle over again.

ME: You don't sound like you have the temperament for this lifestyle.

ALICEA: Ahh. You see, that's what sets me apart from the others. They all sought out superpowers, what with their deodrine and power gauntlets. Meanwhile, I had superpowers thrust upon me.

ME: Explain.

ALICEA: (Yawning slightly, as if reading from a prepared script) Psionic powers, like telepathy, cannot be acquired by taking drugs or having surgery, unless the surgery is performed at a very young age, when the brain isn't fully developed. My parents wanted an exceptional child, and in the 2020's doctors were just starting to operate on newborns to prevent possible future illnesses. It started with marrow infusions for AIDS babies but for a few years, all types of mutilations were legal.

Not that many parents had the means- or the audacity- to do what my folks did. I was a guinea pig for a Japanese neuro-surgeon. He forced my mother to deliver by C-section 14 weeks early so he could shoot my peanut-sized brain full of chemicals which he probably only had a passing familiarity with. He had fourteen other wealthy parents, in addition to mine, convinced that he could expand our intellect and ability to a degree that would make his extraordinary means worthwhile.

You won't find an account of the results in any medical journals. Two babies died on the table as a direct result of the treatment. Two others died within one month from complications arising from the premature deliveries. Four others started showing signs of acute schizophrenia before their fifth birthdays. One is now profoundly retarded. Another committed suicide by rolling in broken glass until he bled to death. Two others, while not institutionalized, suffer from clinical depression, migraines, and periods of hallucinations.

That left three "success stories," although the numbers have probably dwindled since I last checked. A girl from Tokyo now has an IQ of 245 and an acute awareness of other people's thoughts. A Seattle girl was hired by an insurance company when she was 16, apparently because of her 'innate sense of probability,' which means that she's so smart that she can see into the future. Of course, she's also profoundly autistic. And then there's little old me. The treatment didn't jack up the IQ points that much, but I can hear thoughts and project them.

ME: What your parents did to you was barbaric. How did they justify it to you when you were older?

ALICEA: They didn't. My father is the kind of person used to getting what he wants. He wanted a genius and got a kid who was always sick with this side-show trick power. He was never satisfied with me. He always pushed me one way or the other: use what you have, make the most of it, get rich off it.

ME: There must be lucrative ways of using powers like those.

ALICEA: There must be. Unfortunately, any prolonged effort to read minds brings on migraines so intense that I'm essentially disabled. I can open my mind for about four seconds with no pain, and can chance maybe thirty seconds after that. Then I see the lights in my eyes, I get nauseous, and I start to see things that aren't there.

Most employers interested in a telepath would like someone who can keep her mind open for hours. Through an entire luncheon with a major client, for instance. There are some people who can actually do that, I'm told, as the result of accidents or experiments similar to mine. As for me, I use my power as infrequently as possible.

ME: That makes you unusual, both in this team and in the vigilante business.

ALICEA: You aren't kidding. I watch Travis give himself an injection in his neck every night, and I wonder. I see JD mutilate himself in the hope that he'll be able to fly a few hundred more feet, and I can't imagine why he would put himself through that. I see Julianna burn her hands on that machine of hers, and I just want to cry.

ME: That's the second time you mentioned Julianna. Do you two have a special relationship as the team's two girls?

ALICEA: (eyes watering) I try to have a relationship with her. I try to be there for her. She shuts people out. She shuts everyone out.

ME: Its safe to assume that you don't think this is the right environment for her.

ALICEA: (crying) She shouldn't be here. Travis and Julie have a great aunt out in Pittsburgh. Julianna was supposed to go out there and finish high school. She was a 14-year old rebel when their mom died. I screamed at Travis. Don't encourage her, I told him. Don't put ideas in her head. (crying more severely). She wasn't being rational, and neither was Travis, and then they just got stubborn.

God damn him. I hope he's happy. She could be a normal kid now. If anything happens to her . . .

(Alicea breaks down in tears at this point, crying for over a minute. I stopped the camera to give her a chance to compose herself. When we start rolling again, she's still sniffling, but she's calm).

ME: I'm sorry that I have to ask such hard questions.

ALICEA: Don't apologize. It's amazing the amount of regret and guilt you can live with, at least until somebody brings it out into the open.

ME: I have to ask one other tough question. There are some viewers who may be skeptical of your mind-reading abilities. If it wouldn't hurt you too much, I was wondering if you could demonstrate your powers.

ALICEA: (biting her lip) I suppose so.

ME: Do you want me to think of a number or something?

ALICEA: Write it on a piece of paper

(I do so)

ALICEA: I need you to know that when I reach out to your mind, I can't be very picky. I'll get the number, but I'll get other things as well. Usually, that's limited to the thoughts that have passed through your mind in the last few seconds, but you would be surprised how many thoughts you have every second.

ME: I'm ready.

ALICEA: (After a brief pause) One-hundred-eighty-eight.

(I display the number to the camera. Alicea is correct.)

ME: What else did you discover when you read my mind?

ALICEA: (nervously) Just a few things.

ME: Could you be more specific?

ALICEA: (Blushing) Not in front of the camera.

ME: Don't worry about embarrassing me. Anything I don't want the world to know will wind up in the editing room.

ALICEA: Well . . . I discovered that you find me attractive.

ME: You're an attractive girl.

ALICEA: No, not just like that. I didn't sense the passing appreciation of the opposite sex that strangers exchange when they walk along the boardwalk. Your thoughts were more complicated than that. If I didn't know better . . . oh, never mind. Your thoughts are your property and your business. I can't judge a person for the passing thoughts that are cluttering up their brains.

ME: Did you ever read Travis' mind?

ALICEA: (Smiling) How nice of you to change the subject. Yes, very often. It's easier for me to open up when I'm familiar with a person, and when that person's the only one nearby. When Travis and I were serious, it became easy for me to link up with him.

ME: What was it like?

ALICEA: It was the most terrible kind of intimacy you could imagine. I would slip into a link with him casually, not even realizing that I had done it, and then hear thoughts that I never wanted to hear. Sometimes, I wouldn't know if I was listening to my own thoughts or his. I started to lose myself a little bit, in a way that I can't really describe.

We don't link in that way, anymore. The bond isn't there, either. He's almost as much a stranger for me to link with, as you just were.

ME: Do you think that all that mind-reading led to the current state of your relationship?

ALICEA: That's a good excuse for Saturday night: I'm stuck in this apartment because I spent so many nights inside Travis' brain that I think like him, or I'm afraid that I won't feel complete without him. It sounds good, but it doesn't ring true. I'm mature enough to know the truth. There are millions of women in this country just like me, except for the special powers. They won't do what they need to do. They tie themselves to a man and a life that they know damn well will ruin every chance they have in this world of happiness. They don't use telepathy as an excuse, so why should I?

I'm sorry, Randy, but if you're trying to figure out what I'm doing here, I'll have to disappoint you. There is no reason. There's no reason for anything we do. We don't even make decisions. I've become very good at letting the wind blow me wherever it wants to go. Right now, I'm caught up in Travis' breeze, and I'm likely to keep blowing his way until something takes me elsewhere.

I stopped the camera. "Is there anything you don't want me to print?"

She brushed her hair away from her face. "I don't think so. What have I got to be ashamed of at this point?"

She had nothing to be ashamed of, but I did. I edited very carefully around the sequence where she read my mind. She was absolutely correct: I was attracted to her, and I was admiring her even as we did the interview. I rewound the part where she made that revelation about a hundred times before I deposited it on the floor of the van, trying to determine if she flashed a little Mona Lisa smile when she found out.

Chapter 5: Pick Your Friends

Every morning, before the kids woke up, I up-linked with the network and sent the footage back to New York. I flagged the good parts and left instructions for a junior editor so that the hours of useless junk could be hacked away by someone other than me. Gus must've been looking over the kid's shoulder while he edited, because he knew all about the team when he came down to Atlantic City to check on my progress.

"Actually, this is just an excuse to hit the tables," he said as he twirled pasta around his fork. "I dropped 300 bucks at The Shoals last night."

I laughed. It had been over a week since I had spoken to any adult, let alone a colleague, and I welcomed the company. We met at a seafood house on the Atoll for dinner while my cameras kept an eye on the team.

"Seriously," Gus continued after taking a bite. "The rushes look excellent. And you say that you've solved the problem with the one girl?"

I nodded. "She signed on the dotted line after a heart-to-heart, so you can tell Junior not to digitize her face."

"Fantastic." He leaned forward. "You know, the network was delighted to find out that you were doing this documentary in Atlantic City, considering our interests in the Atoll."

Our network was so diversified that it was hard to keep track of all the pots it had a finger in, but I did remember that they made a sizeable investment in one of the amusement parks, and probably made some quiet donations to the building of one of the casinos. There were always subtle cross-promotions going on: a sitcom might film an episode at the park one week, a singer from a variety show might appear at the Atoll the next week. Had I been sent specifically to Atlantic City, I would have known that the network wanted some Atoll publicity for sweeps week. Since I wound up here by accident, they were probably pressuring Gus into making sure that the Atoll didn't figure negatively into my story.

"These kids don't get out here that much," I assured him.

"If they do, don't try to record them," he said, reminding me of the Atoll's no video policy. "We'll be able to get official security videos if you need them."

I smiled at my editor. "Don't worry. I promise not to ruffle too many feathers."

A meaty hand pressed against my shoulder. "Don't tell me that you two gentlemen are spying on me."

I turned around. It was none other than Congressman Joe Bell, looking a little red in the cheeks and enjoying a gin and tonic. The old bird knew Gus pretty well and had met me once or twice. I shook his hand warmly. "Enjoying a little vacation, Congressman?"

He flashed a tipsy grin. "I'm enjoying the best entertainment America has to offer, Randy: the Atlantic City Atoll. I just hope that your presence here doesn't mean that some superhero is ready to blow his top."

I laughed. "I don't think so, Congressman. If so, you'll have to pass some more reforms."

He slapped me on the back. "Oh, that's on the way, Randy. I have some legislation brewing. No compromises to the Republicans this time, Randy. I don't need another tongue-lashing in your column."

"I was never that hard on you," I replied. "Anyway, I save the toughest talk for politicians who listen."

I should back up. Bell was one of the first politicians in the national spotlight to buck the trend toward "get-tough" anti-vigilante legislation. About eight years ago, when he was a state senator, he proposed a series of acts calling for counseling programs, halfway houses, and other rehabilitation services for vigilante criminals. I praised the whole bill; even though I was new on the beat, I could tell that the "throw away the key" mentality was getting us nowhere and wasn't addressing the root causes of superhero crimes. Bell's legislation nearly died in on the senate floor in Trenton; he had to take the teeth out of it, and the idealistic young Randy pounded him for it, probably unfairly. Bell's down in Washington now, but he's always pushing for sanity and moderation while all his peers are calling for mandatory life sentences for CFC users and other overbearing statutes. He had his detractors, but take away the minor drinking problem and I would consider Bell presidential material.

"The Atoll is made for a guy like that," Gus said after we finished schmoozing.

"He likes the booze and the tables," I said.

"It's not just that. There's no recording devices out here. A guy who's always in the public eye has a great chance to disappear. He can walk around with a woman on his arm other than his wife, and he doesn't have to worry about paparazzi behind every bush."

I watched the Congressman spread his wide frame across a barstool and order another drink. "Bell's getting around on his wife?"

Gus smirked. "Surprised?"

I shook my head. "I don't surprise easy. Plus, all those guys do it. As long as he shows up for work and passes good laws, I'm not about to question his personal life."

Gus took his travel bag from beneath his chair. "I agree, but Giles Wasserman probably wouldn't. he'll be interested in knowing the congressman is here, seeing how well they get along."

I stopped in the middle of a bite of spaghetti. "I'm sorry, but did you say Giles Wasserman?"

He removed a laptop computer from his travel bag, then dialed on his modem. "Yes I did. Our esteemed sponsor wanted a conference call to stay updated on your progress. It was a last minute thing."

I dropped my fork in disgust. "Thanks for the ambush, boss."

"Just wipe the butter sauce off your face and smile, Randy," Gus replied.

The computer monitor blinked, and the immaculately manicure image of Giles Wasserman appeared. I was mildly surprised. Wasserman, among his many endeavors, is chairman of a coalition called Family Values Advertising. About a hundred major corporations hire his watchdog group to select appropriate programs upon which to advertise their products. They were tied to a number of other conservative groups and agencies, and generally used their financial muscle to influence programming and public perception. I knew the network dealt with Wasserman regularly, and it made sense that Family Values would be wary of a story like mine, but Gus usually handled matters like this himself.

"It's a pleasure to speak to you, Randy," he said cordially. "I'm a big fan. I sometimes think that your reports on the vigilante situation are the most important segments of a news broadcast."

"Thank you," I said cautiously.

Gus leaned forward so Wasserman could see him through the computer's tiny camera. "Mr. Wasserman, I don't think that this camera has the acuity to see across the dining room, so you'll have to take me at my word that Mr. Joseph Bell is sitting at the bar behind Randy."

Wasserman crossed his hands. "Ah, Congressman Bell is enjoying the fruits of the taxpayer's labor far from the prying eyes of the press. I'm sure that there's no more . . . traditional vacation spot in New Jersey for him to frequent in this joyous season. A brothel, perhaps?"

Gus chuckled. I nodded politely. "The Atoll is good enough for Gus and I, Mr. Wasserman," I said.

"Oh, don't be offended, Mr. Stone," Wasserman said convincingly. "Bell and I spar often over legislative matters, and we tend to get personal, but it's all in good fun. I tend to forget that your politics are similar to Bell's."

So that was the story, I figured: Wasserman didn't like the idea of a liberal like me doing a Family Values sponsored documentary. Forget the fact that I'm not really a liberal: anybody left of Ron Reagan was a liberal in Wasserman's eye. This was a "reign in the eager reporter" meeting, something I hadn't dealt with since I was a pup covering the crime beat in the Bronx. I bristled with resentment, but kept my mouth shut.

Gus didn't miss a beat with his toadying. "Have you had an opportunity to look at the rushes I sent you?" he asked. "I hope you weren't offended by the violent scenes."

"Yes I did, and I am very pleased. FamVal realizes that a program like this will have violent content. We need to make sure that the violence is handled responsibly."

"That's why we sent Randy," Gus replied. "He knows what to show and when to draw the line."

"Indeed. Randy, just how dangerous are these young people?"

It struck me as an odd question, but you don't argue with the advertisers. "To themselves, they're very dangerous. To the rest of the world, they're harmless."

"I see. Not a major threat to public safety, then?"

"Not really. But then, most superheroes aren't. They're more likely to injure themselves than anyone else."

"Randy," Wasserman said in a condescending tone. "We don't use the term 'superhero' on a FamVal program."

Gus scowled at me. I apologized.

"It's OK," Wasserman said. "The vigilantes in question may refer to themselves by that misnomer, but we feel that you, as the reporter, have an obligation to use the socially acceptable term."

Gus assured Wasserman that no such slip-up would be tolerated.

"Splendid," Wasserman continued in his measured tones. "As I have said, we have no concerns about the violence level of what we have seen so far. Can we expect it to escalate?"

Wasserman was fishing for something, but I couldn't figure out what. I know what answer Gus was hoping I would give, but I couldn't.

"Frankly, Mr. Wasserman, it almost has to, if this story is going to be worth your clients' advertising dollars."

"Randy . . ." Gus began, ready to breathe fire.

"What do you mean?" Wasserman asked.

I explained. "We have some good footage right now, but these kids aren't what I expected. All they do is drink and fight with each other. Once in a great while, they beat up drug dealers. I'm not sure this story is going anywhere. I can produce the show, of course, but it won't have any crescendo."

"Mmmm," Wasserman said thoughtfully. "But this is more of a concern for your editor than for me."

"Yes it is." Gus said, looking ready to hack me to death with a fork.

"I just need you to know that if anything big does happen, we're going to have to include it in the story. We don't have enough video to hold anything back. If these kids do stumble into something serious, it could get gory."

"I appreciate you candor," Wasserman replied. "I don't want you to get the impression that FamVal wants you to hold back. Quite the opposite. The vigilante problem, especially as it affects young people, is the most important item on our political agenda right now. A truly graphic portrayal of the atrocities these criminals perform will help to create a proper political climate."

"I appreciate your candor," I replied. Wasserman's public face was that of a crusader for children, but he was a savvy politician. FamVal almost certainly lobbied for various types of legislation, with vigilante laws near the top of their list. A juicy story on prime time not only made a prime advertising vehicle, but could also be a useful public opinion tool. "Of course you realize, though, that I won't sensationalize this story to help you get a crime bill past Bell in Congress."

"Randy, Randy, no one is asking you to get your hands dirty in politics," Wasserman replied with a dry grin. "We may not agree on political matters, but both of us are disgusted by what vigilante violence is doing to today's youth. You advocate rehabilitation, while FamVal feels that rehab is the velvet glove that must be supported by the iron hand of the VPA and other laws. That's just quibbling. We both know that a solid production on your part may benefit FamVal in many ways. And as for your concern that the story may lack . . . crescendo, I wouldn't be concerned. You have several weeks of shooting left, and anything can happen. We'll nudge you if the violence is too extreme, but otherwise, feel free to do your story."

I smiled, and the image of Wasserman disappeared. Gus was sweating. "You have to antagonize people like that, don't you Randy?"

I sipped my drink. "I don't trust him."

"Neither do I, but we have to play nice. Either way, that went well."

"I guess so. I'll bet that's the first time that Family Values invited a producer to put more violence in a show."

"No, it isn't." Gus said, gulping his drink. "Not by a long shot."


The living room was silent, and except for some distant street lights filtered through the blinds, completely dark. Travis sat alone.

The apartment was usually alive late into the night after patrols, with the team drinking and playing virtual games and blasting music on their headsets. But Travis had patrolled alone that night. He returned to an apartment that was empty save for his sister, who slept soundly in the second bedroom. His body bruised and aching from his nightly rituals, he stripped down to the waist, poured himself a drink, and sat silently, staring at the blank screen of the video console.

Alicea returned from her evening shift around 11. She dropped her handbag in the kitchen, slipped off her jacket, and gulped down a beer as she watched Travis sit motionlessly. She left to change into night clothes, boxers and an oversized tee-shirt, without acknowledging him. When she returned, he still had not moved.

"I'm going to bed," she announced.

He turned to look at the open doorway to the bedroom they sometimes shared. Then he turned to her. "Am I invited?"

She thought for a moment. "Yes. But only because it's colder than usual, and the bedroom is drafty. It's either you or a hot water bottle."

Travis chuckled faintly.

She leaned over his chair. "Come with me now, and I might even manage to be romantic for a minute or two before exhaustion overtakes me."

He turned back to the blank screen. "Later. I'm waiting for JD."

"I thought he was going out with you."

Travis shook his head slowly.

"He might not come back tonight," she said.

Travis' features hardened. "He'll be back."

Alicea withdrew from him. "Whatever," she said with resignation. She patted the back of the chair, studied the back of his head for a moment, then disappeared again into her bedroom.

Travis was alone again. He squeezed his knuckles, soothing out aches and rubbing knotted muscles. It had been a short but productive patrol. His target had been Top Hatz, the strip club down the street that had offended him a few days before. He climbed the drain spout and slipped into a second story window. Inside, his suspicions were confirmed: both drugs and sex were available for the right price. He broke the jaw of a security goon and threw a dealer down a flight of stairs. A patron drew a Saturday Night Special on him, but he repelled the shot with his buckler and cracked the gunman's head against a door frame. He destroyed several thousand dollars worth of property, bringing business to a stop at the legitimate club operating below. Then he crawled back out the window, nary the worse for wear.

The doorknob turned. JD tried to creep in unnoticed, but saw Travis sitting with his back to the door. "You usually aren't back yet," he said, the hint of guilt in his voice.

Travis didn't turn around. "They say that you pick your friends," he said. "It's not true."

JD dropped a package on the kitchen table, seemingly ignoring Travis.

"Some fourth-grade teacher decides that the best way to arrange her class is in six rows of five. By virtue of the alphabet, and that particular sequence, Hood and Orczykowski sit beside each other for a full year. If she arranges her class in four rows of seven, I might be having this conversation with Mike Maloney, or I might not be having this conversation at all."

JD laughed. "Mike Maloney was an asshole."

"So were you," Travis replied. "Hell, so was I. But we sat next to each other, and we talked to each other because there was no one else to talk to. Then fifth grade comes, and we talk to each other because we know each other from fourth grade."

JD stood in front of Travis, grinning nervously. "The rest is history, buddy."

Travis shook his head. "Of course it is. We hang out on weekends, because we're used to each other. Then comes drinking, then comes girls. Next thing you know, ten years have passed, and we've shared everything: homes, cars, even girlfriends. We never chose each other, but we're like family: we're stuck with each other.

"If you do something stupid, do I turn you away? Of course not. How do I turn away a friend. Especially an old friend. One who bought me my first beer. One who watched my back when I dropped a punk into the hood of his car. We're trapped together."

JD's grin slowly faded. Travis' gaze was accusing. "Travis, I don't know what the fuck you're getting it."

Travis stood beside his friend. "I know where you went."

JD nodded. He opened the door to Julianna's bedroom and retrieved his flight harness. "I went to Shorty Rock," he said.

"How could you?"

JD didn't look at him. "Shorty was willing to erase some debts for a favor. I wanted to hear him out."

"So you snuck out. You didn't think to talk to me. Don't you think that was selfish?"

JD rolled his eyes. "Sure, Travis. Everybody's selfish but you."

"I never said that," Travis said as he followed JD to the couch, where the flyer bolted the apparatus onto his flesh. "But I know when I'm being betrayed."

"You're fucking nuts."

"What's in the package," Travis asked, pointing to the brown satchel on the table. "Weapons? Drugs? Are we running N-10-City for Shorty now?"

"It's a minicam," JD replied. " Like the one Stone has watching us right now. He needs to get it past Atoll security. I'm going to fly it out to a maintenance shed and be back in an hour. I wouldn't have taken the job if it were drugs or weapons. I got some standards."

Travis laughed. He poured another drink and watched as JD adjusted his flight harness. "One day you wake up and you realize that you don't have anything in common with your best friend anymore."

"Here we go again."

"You've spent your lives together, but you've processed the same experience from two different angles. You realize that if you saw this guy, this friend who you shared your life with, walking down the street you would snap his neck rather than deal with him. But he's your friend. You're forced to stand beside him."

"You ain't forced to do anything, Travis. You can cut your own deal with Shorty."

"I don't deal with scum like him. And don't pretend your doing this for me."

"I'm not. I'm doing this because I'll have to live in this town long after this vigilante gig dies down."

JD grabbed his parcel. Travis stepped in front of him as he tried to leave.

"We do this dance too often," JD said. He tried to step around Travis, but was blocked.

"I know," Travis replied. "and we know how it ends. "I can make you stay here, but I won't, because I need you on my side. Just like Alicea: she can kick me out of the bedroom for a month, but I won't do anything about it. The cause is bigger than all of us; keeping the team together is my main responsibility."

JD shook his head. "There's no cause, Travis."

Travis smiled. "There is, even if you can't see it." He stepped away from the door. "Do what's in your heart," he said.

JD left, returning two hours later without the package. Travis spent the night in the easy chair, staring at the blank video monitor until sleep overtook him.

Chapter 6: Booze, Explosives, and Instability

They couldn't put it together the next few nights. Travis, JD, and Alicea were barely speaking to one another, and Julianna never spoke to anyone anyway. They would find reasons to quit after an hour or so on patrol: somebody's throat was sore, it was too cold, whatever. They sniffled and snapped at each other, bickering like old married people. I had more footage of arguments about the dishes than I had of the team in action.

I started snoozing in the van and letting my floater do the work when they went out. I wasn't missing anything. The police scanners were quiet, the streets quieter. It was too cold and rainy for crime. By midnight, they were back in their cave for four hours of drinking and shouting. Better for me to watch from a safe distance.

Night three of this, and I was remembering those stories of fake documentaries, how the reporters would set things up. They used to put explosives in trucks, then run crash tests. Documentary subjects were given booze or goaded to make them act unstable. I could use a break like that, except these kids already had all the booze, explosives, and instability they needed, and they were still boring. What they needed was an emotional kick in the teeth, and one from the outside, not the constant sniping they gave each other.

That's what I was thinking when the police scanner crackled to life.

"All units," dispatch began. The voice was shaky. "Request immediate backup. 301 Ocean Ave: possible 8080 in progress."

I nearly fell out of my chair. Adjusting my headset and checking the video feed, I located the team. Luckily, they were still on the street, not hanging out in a pizza joint. They had just met in a parking lot not a half mile from the crime scene. If they were moving, one of them would be monitoring the scanners.

Travis leapt into view, turning up the volume on the radio they kept in the scooter. "Did he say 8080?"

He had, as the dispatcher immediately verified. Julianna looked around in confusion; JD clamped his helmet down and tightened his flight harness. Alicea just shook her head.

"That's the code number for a super villain, isn't it?" Travis asked Alicea.

She nodded. These kids probably only knew about the super villain code from movies and the net. Atlantic City had never seen a major super villain incident, at least to my knowledge. The police didn't sound too confident in themselves: they listened for a moment while the dispatcher gave way to a lieutenant who gave way to a captain, each verifying the situation. All the cop on the scene could verify was that somebody big was busting up a saloon and possibly endangering patrons. The perp called himself Mace. The beat cop was ordered not to advance until experts, presumably the McCoy units, were called in.

"This is big," Travis said, "and it's not even ten blocks away." His eyes widened.

"Well, shit," JD said as he began strapping his harness over his shoulder. "Let's go."

But I was already in motion. The Goths against a real super villain? It was my first break since I met them. This called for multiple-camera coverage. I decided to leave the van behind: too conspicuous, and the crime scene was only a mile from me. It was a great night for a wind sprint through freezing drizzle with a camera mounted on your shoulder. I needed the fresh air.


(Note: Much of the following was taken from my November expose on Supervillains. - R.S.)

The average self-proclaimed "super-villain" is between 35 and 50 years of age, male, white, and divorced, separated, or otherwise estranged from a spouse. Most are moderately affluent and live in suburban or affluent communities. Few demonstrate any maladjusted behavior during adolescence or early adulthood. For most, it's as if someone flipped a switch the moment middle age approached, transforming a respectable family man into a souped-up, costume-donning maverick capable of all manner of socially unacceptable mischief.

Psychologically, it's more complicated than that. While only a few SVs are victims of childhood abuse or other trauma, most are categorized upon capture as sexually repressed, and government shrinks agree that most have demonstrated an escalated cycle of passive-aggressive behavior in the months leading up to their "transformation." A Harvard psychologist coined the term "Middle Manager's Disenfranchisement Syndrome" to describe the impulse many moderately-successful males experience to engage in misanthropic behavior, be it old-fashioned drug abuse or wearing a spandex costume and beating up teenagers. Simply put, the man who must drive an hour each way to and from a dull job and a sterile, uninspiring home life can become a fusion capacitor of pent-up rage.

Not that all SVs resort to violence. Most are too repressed for that, even after they have medicated themselves with Ray-Tae (or bought a power suit, or whatever) and started to troll the streets in a pair of tights. Every night, you can go downtown to any precinct in Manhattan and find drunk-tanks full of broken-down SVs who did little more than harass a few passers-by or spray paint a few buildings. Others lash out on a very limited scale, causing a barroom brawl here, robbing a convenience store there, and generally being more of a nuisance than a threat to public safety.

It's the truly disturbing cases, like the Red John incident I covered four years ago, that make the big headlines and fuel the public opinion that SVs are truly dangerous. Red John was Dave Pullman, a loan coordinator from Long Island who fit the Super Villain profile almost too well. One day he drove to his local mall, wandered into the Tiffany's Secret lingerie shop, whipped off his overcoat to reveal a red spandex vampire costume fortified with a home-made power harness, and demanded ten million dollars in cash from the state government to prevent him from blowing up the whole mall. He toasted a few security guys to show that he had truly lost it, then pulled down the cage, locking a half-dozen employees and shoppers in the store with him.

It turned out that Pullman had spent months building the harness in his garage. The project maxed out all of his credit cards, with the most expensive device also being the most dangerous: a High Yield CFC, which must have set him back at least fifty grand. When the local township police arrived on the scene, they knew the situation was critical. Not only was Pullman ready for the cracker barrel, but his handiwork wasn't that great: the CFC was jury-rigged to his apparatus with alligator clips and duct tape. The whole thing could go off at any time, with or without Pullman pulling the trigger.

So all of us waited for the McCoy unit to arrive. The local police stalled Pullman while I recorded everything on minicam. Pullman's behavior alternated between psychotic and silly. He would shout threats and grandiose boasts at the authorities, then turn and try to flirt with his hostages like some horny teenager. All the while, he kept jostling his power harness. With my zoom lens, I could see an alligator clip slipping off its contact just above the CFC. Maybe that would disconnect his power. Maybe that would cause a surge and kill us all. I was no fusion mechanic.

The McCoy Unit arrived quietly in the parking lot, and they soon discovered that this would be no routine operation. Standard operating procedures called for a quick commando operation, but the delicate status of the power suit ruled out the use of stun guns, particle weapons, or old fashioned bullets. Sleeping gas was the safe alternative: just pump it in, knock everybody out, and wake the hostages up later. But recon determined that Pullman was carrying an oxygen supply unit with him. Apparently, he was familiar with McCoy Unit techniques from the net.

Eventually, they decided to use stealth tactics, which worked perfectly. It took two-and-a-half hours for two officers to silently cut a hole through the ceiling of a dressing room using a laser on low power. The McCoy team stalled Pullman the whole time, claiming to be negotiators and so forth. That long wait took us to the four o'clock news, and the affiliate went directly to my live feed. I stood for forty minutes, narrating a typically boring hostage situation to a riveted television audience, all the while knowing how the scene would act out. While the fake negotiators kept Pullman distracted, two officers slipped down from the ceiling into the dressing room, snuck through the store, and grabbed him, one plunging a hypodermic full of something strong into his neck. Pullman dropped like a bag of flour, and crisis engineers rushed in to make sure that the CFC didn't accidentally go off.

So ended the crime spree of the mighty Red John, resulting in the deaths of two mall security guards and lasting a total of five hours and fifteen minutes. The police later discovered that Pullman was wearing panties and a garter under his costume, which to me was the least bizarre detail of the whole incident, but which drove the tabloid press crazy.

What drove Pullman nuts? His wife had left him six months before the Red John case, and many jumped to the conclusion that the separation drove him over the hill. Further investigation revealed that that wasn't the case at all: Mrs. Pullman left because her husband was already losing it. He had been seeing doctors and counselors to combat impotence for years, all to no avail. She supported him through his troubles, but he became increasingly bitter and unwilling to communicate. He started losing his temper over minor affairs, finally trashing their house after discovering that she had missed a few credit card payments. That same Harvard professor I mentioned a few paragraphs ago commented in an interview with me that Pullman "had lost all efficacy, at work, at home, essentially, in his whole life. Not surprisingly, he created an illusory character of power as a defense mechanism." Pullman began referring to himself as "the red vampire" casually, making boasts and threats to friends and co-workers, and even claiming to have hypnotic powers. When he refused to seek additional counseling, Mrs. Pullman gave up. His condition deteriorated from there.

When most people think of SVs, then, they think of cases like Red John, or of Clyde Koch (the Birmingham Bandito) or of one of the other sensational cases from recent years. These famous incidents create a warped perception of who SVs usually are and what they are typically capable of. Most super villains differ from Pullman and his ilk in two major ways. One, I mentioned earlier: few can bring themselves to acts of murder. Two, few possess power capabilities as dangerous as Pullman's. High- and Moderate-yield CFCs are expensive and hard-to-find, and just owning them is a felony. Most SVs just dose up on Ray-Tae or Phinny-Bar for a few months, bulk up to their satisfaction, and start punching things. A few will procure some type of blaster weapon or assemble a power suit based on just a superconductive power unit or a bunch of minimal-yield CFCs. Lucky for them that they stay away from the major hardware. Attorneys are usually willing to plea-bargain down an SV from a federal offense to something not tied to the Vigilante Prevention Act if all he used were some chemical muscles or a blaster. There was no escaping a federal facility for Pullman; he earned himself ten years the moment he bought that CVC, then tacked some consecutive life sentences onto it.

They could move quickly when they wanted to. The floater caught the whole scene: JD engaging his engine and gaining lift from a running start, Travis taking to the skies, the girls revving up their bike and rolling. The scramble took about eight minutes: great response time, but not good enough to beat the cops to a crime scene in a real emergency. They must often have showed up a minute after the authorities and watched from a distance as their chance for glory dwindled; I could picture the kids in their little costumes shuffling their feet at the perimeter of a crime scene. This could easily have been one of those instances. But unlike their New York counterparts, Atlantic City cops were spooked by the news of a super villain at work. As I followed the sirens to the scene, my police scanner buzzed with information.

"Cruiser 19, what is your status?"

"We're outside the main entrance. It's sealed off. This is a hostage situation. Repeat: the SV does have hostages."

"Do not try to engage. We are awaiting instructions from the ATF on how to proceed. Observe only: we will be sending a negotiator shortly."

Indecision bought the team some time, and they didn't need much. Alicea and Julianna parked some distance from the scene, meeting Travis a block away in a dark alley. I pP>Chapter 4: remote control of my camera.

"Main entrance is blocked off," Travis told the others.

"Kitchen door?" Alicea suggested.

"One if by land, two if by air," Travis said, and the others nodded. He signaled to the rooftop above them. JD was perched on the façade, a motionless gargoyle overlooking the scene.

They moved out, noiselessly, swiftly, Travis proceeding to the back entrance, Julianna to the shadows across the street, Alicea to a fallback position. The coordinated efforts surprised me: Travis claimed that they practiced occasionally, but all I had seen were some romps on the beach, so I assumed he was exaggerating. But there they were, moving in unison: even Alicea, who watched the others from the rear and signaled Julianna into position.


The saloon itself was called the Bashful Banana, a gay joint far from the glitter of the Atoll and the fading charm of the boardwalk. It was a hellhole in a part of town where they never bothered to fix the street lights. There were no windows; the outer walls were covered with placards and graffiti. Flashing lights and sirens in the parking lot didn't attract much attention from the area residents; they probably only scared the drug dealers off the corner. The night was silent and still, except for the sirens, the squad car bearing witness to the violence inside the club.

Eyewitnesses later filled in the details. At about 9:00 PM, a 44-year old investment analyst named Dennis Michael Zane (according to his driver's license) entered the club. He wasn't a regular. He kept to himself at a corner table for several hours, drinking scotch and soda and refusing offers to dance. There was nothing unusual about his attire, or at least nothing that would stand out in a place which usually boasted a few dozen drag queens. Sure, he was wearing a lot of leather, even by the standards of the biker boys. His briefcase didn't match the outfit, but nobody noticed. Zane himself attracted a different kind of attention: the biceps which three months of Rae-Tae had built brought a steady stream of admirers to his table.

After about two hours, a well-known local player who called himself T-Bone approached Zane and propositioned him. The two quarreled verbally for a moment, then T-Bone was flung across a bank of tables. This type of thing often happened at the Banana: a few beefy bouncers moved in to control the situation.

That's when Zane pulled the prod from his briefcase. It was an ordinary cattle prod, souped up with two low-yield CFCs in the handle. Police in the Midwest have been known to use a similar device as a powerful bully-club, but they only turned the power up in emergencies. Zane struck one bouncer with the prod and incapacitated him, burning a hole in his shirt and charring his skin in the burn region. He swung wildly at the second bouncer, struck a patron, and seriously injured him. Zane then barricaded the main entrance, flinging several tables and chairs against the door.

Then began the tirade. Zane, now calling himself Mace, had apparently tripped on his way out of the closet The manifesto he delivered to his captive audience could've kept a psychology class busy for weeks: their were homophobic threats followed by demands for sex, rants against society and misquotes from the bible. Nothing unusual by SV standards: hapless hate crimes were often within their repertoire. But predictability made Zane no less dangerous, and the patrons wisely avoided provoking him.

The tirade, the threats, and the terror continued for nearly an hour, witnesses said. No one saw the DJ escape to inform the police. They all stood in three rows along the bar, watching Mace preen and pose and wondering when he would blow his top and start zapping anyone in range.

No one moved to stop Mace until a section of the wall gave way above the heads of hostages, and a winged man flew through the opening: a 23-year-old, acid-etched punk descending on this Mace character like an avenging angel.


Travis had given the mark, relayed by Alicea, and Julianna unleashed the power of her gauntlets. When "Velvet" used her iron-fisted weapon against me the week before, it was on minimal power: a brief static pulse slamming into its target at a few hundred joules, enough to knock a big guy senseless. In an open environment, the superconductive generator could rev up to a few thousand joules, emitting the pulse in a cylinder or a cone or a wide ellipse. She directed a cylinder of maximum force against a portion of wall out of the sight lines of the distant squad car. The air in the force field wavered, like the heated air above blacktop in the summer, and then a transverse pulse of distortion was visible. After a few seconds of assault, the old masonry wall caved in, and JD blew through like a rocket.

At the same moment, Travis' shoulder splintered the board that secured the service entrance. He disappeared into the kitchen, with Alicea inching carefully along behind him.

JD picked out Mace quickly. He flew straight into the villain, pile-driving him into a nearby wall. The blow rattled Mace, but didn't knock him out, and JD had been careless: he was no longer airborne, and Mace still had his prod. JD managed to grab the more powerful man's forearm before being struck, but Mace bloodied JD's nose with his left hand and tossed him away.

As Mace moved in to attack the prone JD, Travis dove through the doors behind the bar. He leapt atop the bar with one hop and landed a foot in Mace's stomach. Mace had Travis beat by fifty pounds, but Travis' speed allowed him to jab Mace a few times in the face with his buckler before the larger man could take a wild, errant swing with his weapon.

Alicea caught the attention of the hostages and moved them through the kitchen to safety while their captor was engaged. Travis struggled with Mace for several minutes, catching the prod against his insulated buckler while landing punches and kicks which would knock a normal man out.

Then a sudden pulse of distorted air ended the fight, as Travis finally cleared far enough out of the way to give his sister a clean shot at Mace. The villain collapsed sideways from the force. When he tried to right himself, JD scrambled back to his feet and stood over him, extending a sharp wing until it dug slightly into Mace's flesh.

Alicea returned from rescuing the hostages. "Is it over?" she asked.

Travis nodded. "We won," he said, his chest heaving with pride.

As they stood catching their breath, they noticed music playing. It was plug music: the stuff all street kids listen too, all drums and static and piercing super-sonics. At first, it sounded like some punk blasting his portable unit outside, but it quickly became louder, to the point where it seemed to surround the building.

"What the hell is that?" Travis asked. Live weapons fire punctuated the beats.

"That ain't part of the song," JD said.

Alicea peered through the service door. Her eyes widened. "Everybody find cover!" she shouted. "Now."

The watched in confusion as she grabbed Julianna's arm and pulled her toward relative safety behind a bank of overturned tables. She leapt over a table, Julianna instinctively following. The music and shooting outside grew deafening.

Travis turned to join the ladies, but saw that a nearby wall was shuddering. He pulled a heavy oak table from a corner and hoisted it on his shoulders. The wall was splintering now, ready to collapse at any moment. With a running start, he leapt, table and all, over the upended tables and chairs separating him from Alicea. The wall erupted in a hail of particleboard, wood and masonry. Travis braced his arms. The table shielded the three of them from the debris, but they were soon hidden beneath the table and rubble.

Blasters lit up the parking lot behind the collapsed wall. A few cops were in a firefight with what appeared to be a small battalion of armor-clad warriors. These weren't McCoy troopers in their state-of-the-art gear, though. Everybody had his own custom hardware, most of it in shoddy condition. The only constant was the plug music: all of them were jacked into one source, blasting the noise from speakers mounted in helmets or power gauntlets or breastplates. Five goons poured through the opening they had just made; three had conventional CFC rifles and some armor, one wore a scope helmet, and one was decked out head-to-toe in piecemeal plate mail, not one piece matching any other.

"Black Street Herd in the crib" announced the helmet guy, his voice amplified through the same system that provided the music. "Lookin' for the faggot called Mace." . . .

I found safety in the door frame between the bar and the kitchen. I crouched low, letting the floater do the dirty work and using my own camera to catch whatever was available without exposing myself to crossfire. Despite their sometimes fawning support in the media, the Black Street Herd wasn't above gay bashing and other hate crimes, and they wouldn't discriminate now that they've come looking for action.

There were now two gaping holes in the wall. JD took full advantage of the cross draft, springing into flight and drawing Herd fire as he left the building. Two Herd members assaulted Travis as soon as he cleared the rubble pile. They were wearing nano-servo armor on their upper-bodies, which granted them incredible strength. Travis only partially deflected a blow to his stomach, and a second attacker tossed him into the wall with ease.

The other Herd members searched the room. The found Mace lying half-conscious on the floor. All of their communications were broadcast over their plug music transmission. "That damn fool beat us to him," one said, lifting pointing to Travis while Mace's limp body.

"Take his ass down," another said, aiming a laser pistol at Travis, who was struggling to compose himself.

It appeared that the pistol-wielder fired, but instead he collapsed. Julianna appeared from her concealment behind a pile of rubble, her gauntlet freshly discharged.

The Herd members opened fire upon her, and she ducked for cover. She lifter her gauntlet above the rubble, firing wildly at the sound of weapon discharges. She grazed another attacker by dumb luck, but they split up to surround her.

JD lit back into the room at full throttle. He drove a sharpened wing into a joint in the servo-armor of one of Travis attackers, yanking back with his shoulder to stay in flight. The blade dripped with blood. Travis took advantage of the wounded attacker, whose armor was damaged by the assault. He jabbed his hands inside the crack JD created, slipping the Herd goon into a hug and peeling off his protection like he was cracking a lobster. Travis threw the armor at his second assailant to slow him down, then quickly subdued his powerless foe.

JD flew right from his assist of Travis into the chest of one of Julianna's attackers. The thug lost his weapon as the wind was knocked out of him, sending him sprawling onto the bar. JD was back on his feet, but couldn't take flight again quickly enough. He was a big winged target for the other thug's blaster rifle. He managed to duck a direct hit, but shrapnel from a table and barstools showered him. Julianna tried to retaliate, but her blast was off the mark.

Reinforcements were arriving for the Herd. They had spooked the police into a temporary retreat, and four more jammers, alerted by the shooting, came to join the fight. JD was down, Julianna had her hands full, and Travis was doing all he could to avoid the swift, deadly punches of the armored behemoth he battled with.

Alicea saw the reinforcements arriving as she crouched behind her concealment of splintered tables and crumbled wall. "We're out of our league here," she whispered as she poked her head out to observe Travis' progress. His hit-and-run tactics weren't putting a dent in his opponent. Her eyes narrowed.

"Blackheart," she shouted, for once remembering Travis' code name. "That one carries the music amplifier for the whole Herd," she said, pointing to a power pack fastened to the rib-plate on the thugs armor.

Travis leapt back and ducked to avoid the table his attacker tossed at him. He looked at Alicea and shrugged his shoulders.

Her eyes narrowed again. I wasn't sure if she could project thoughts or merely read them, but it made sense that even if she couldn't project thoughts to others, she might be able to send them to Travis.

That's what happened. Travis spun away from another attack, then feigned clumsily, allowing himself to get caught in a vicious headlock. The grip was suffocating, but it put him into position to punch the casing protecting the amplifier that blasted inspirational music to the troops.

The others in the Herd charged through the opening in the wall. They formed a line along the bar, blasting indiscriminately at the debris the girls were using for cover. Travis cracked the casing, accessed the controls of the music, and cranked it. The whole system fed back, the piercing howl affecting all of us, but especially the Herd, who were closest to the noise. They clutched at their ears instinctively; Travis, freed from the headlock, ran to JD, shouting orders to his sister. "Take them down!" he shouted.

The feedback subsided, but Julianna trained her fist at the row of attackers and adjusted her weapon for a wide burst. Travis hoisted JD over his shoulder and scrambled for cover. The pulse distortion erupted from Julianna's gauntlet, knocking some of the thugs to their knees and others over the bar.

One of the kneeling Herd jammers looked down at his weapon. It was an ordinary blaster rifle, like the one which incapacitated JD moments before, but it was wired to a CFC booster pack strapped to the guy's waist. The wire was frayed, and Julianna's blast had disrupted the energy flow. A high-frequency hum emerged from the booster pack, and the weapon began to glow, faintly at first, then suddenly with white-hot intensity.

"Overload," Travis shouted, and he dove into the makeshift redoubt that protected the others. The Herd member looked up at them in plaintive horror. He tried vainly to unbuckle the power booster. His comrades, composing themselves from Julianna's attack, saw what was happening and tried to escape.

The floorboards shook as the weapon exploded. Liquor bottles burst into flames, causing a hundred mini-explosions that showered the bar in glass and droplets of burning alcohol. The Goths huddled in relative safety as flames quickly overtook the building.

"Don't they use safety breakers on those things?" Travis asked as he protected the others from the rain of glass with his buckler.

"It's too late to ask, isn't it?" Alicea replied.

Julianna peered from over her brother's shoulder at the blast zone. " I think . . I think they're dead."

She was right. A pair of them managed to escape, but they guy with the faulty weapon was a smudge on the floor, and one of his comrades was torn apart gruesomely. A third crawled along the floor, desperately trying to escape the flames.

"The police are moving in, and this place is close to flashover," Alicea said.

"They'll get the villain and any other survivors," Travis said. "We're out of here."


The whole city was alive with flashers and sirens. The howling from police and fire units echoed through the streets as my scanner crackled with data. The fire swept into the adjacent (fortunately vacant) building, reaching four-alarm status and requiring the assistance of units from the mainland. The police lost the trail of our heroes, as did I: they moved quickly when the cops arrived. I headed back to their apartment building and waited in my van in the back alley for signs of them.

They were only a minute or so behind me, despite being on foot and not moving at full steam. Travis supported JD with one arm as the injured flyer hobbled with pain, clutching a burn wound on his shoulder. The girls flanked them, keeping a wary eye for the authorities as they moved. The motorcycle was lost: there was no time to retrieve it as they fled the scene. They were all covered with scrapes, bruises, burns, and ash from the collapsed vents.

Alicea tugged at the fire escape ladder. "We'll have to risk sending Jeremy through the front door," she said.

"Can't," Travis said, huffing as he eased his comrade to the ground. "Someone will see us."

"Then how the hell will we get him up there?"

"Julie, help me lift him."

Alicea watched as Julianna tried to help her brother support JD's weight. An attempt to support JD by his injured shoulder elicited a tortured wail.

"My God," Alicea gasped. "We have to get him to a hospital."

"No way," Travis replied. "Jules, climb up and get him something for the pain. And me for courage."

Julianna ascended the fire escape as Travis removed JD's flight harness; Travis had been carrying it over his free shoulder. "Alicea, do we have any rope?"

They did; Alicea produced a large spool of bailing twine that she kept in her hip pouch. Travis fastened the twine to the edges of the harness, looping it several times through the eyelets where JD normally attached the metal dowels implanted beneath his shoulders. He created several wide loops, tying them off at the top to create a makeshift basket.

JD's consciousness appeared to be waning; Travis slapped him lightly across the face to wake him. "JD, can you support yourself by sitting inside your shoulder harness and holding onto the rope?"

JD shook the cobwebs out of his head. "I think so."

"Good. I should be able to lift you then."

Alicea helped Travis adjust JD in the harness, then Travis began to climb. He climbed about halfway to the first landing with JD still resting on the ground, but then he had to turn and lift his friend with both arms, wrapping one leg around the ladder for support. Once he cupped one arm within the basket loop, he was able to grip the ladder with his free arm and complete the last few tortuous steps to the first landing. All the while, he held his right arm outstretched to keep his injured friend from swinging and banging hard against the iron ladder.

"One down, eleven to go," Travis said as he caught his breath.

Alicea stood beside me and watched the slow ascent. "Can't you do anything?" she asked.

"Not really."

"But what about your floating camera?"

My floater and minicam were hovering beside me, taping the climbers from a low angle. "The floater only has enough juice to hover with about eight pounds of cargo. The only reason it's not up there getting close-ups is because Travis wouldn't exactly consider it moral support to see something flying beside him."

They reached the second landing when Julianna appeared. She had changed out of costume and was sliding down from landing to landing with a bottle in her hand.

"I brought some whiskey," she called down.

"Good work. Meet us on the third landing," Travis replied, his voice weak from exhaustion.

They were on their way to the third landing when the strobe hit us. A police cruiser drove into the alley, and his beam lit everything: Travis on the ladder, JD hanging from a rope basket, Alicea and yours truly. Needless to say, they felt the need to investigate further. They stopped the car and turned on their flashers, keeping the strobe right on Alicea and I.

"They see us," Alicea whispered.

With a flick of my controller, I sent my floater into a darkened shadow beside a trash dumpster. There was a good chance that the cops didn't notice it when the lights hit us, and I had no interest in being identified as a journalist at that moment.

"They made it," Alicea whispered. Sure enough, Travis had managed to crawl onto the third landing and pull JD up. They tried to hide up there with Julianna, but to no avail. One of the officers shined his flashlight through the grates of the fire escape, and the trio could clearly be seen, although Travis was doing his best to conceal the flight pack.

"Could you have your friends come down from there?" one cop asked, addressing me. I was formulating a few lame stories when Alicea spoke up.

"It might not be a good idea," she said, speaking loudly so her comrades could hear. "They've been drinking for hours."

A good lie, I thought: the fire in the bar had left all of us with a sickly, alcoholic smell, and the crew on the fire escape had a bottle to corroborate the story.

"So that's what you've been doing," the cop asked, "drinking all night?"

Alicea nodded.

"And what was all that nonsense with the one guy hanging from the rope?"

Alicea fidgeted. "Oh, boys will be boys." She then closed her eyes, concentrating for the briefest of seconds. Then, she affected this dizzy teenager pose, pointing to one cop's badge. "Hey, your badge says you're Sergeant Dugan."

The cop nodded.

"Isn't Vince Petrone your usual partner?"

The other cop, who had been snooping around the alley and flashing his light up the fire escape, turned to look at Alicea.

"Yeah," Dugan said. "You know Vince?"

"He's my cousin!" Alicea said, smiling warmly. "Did Lucy have the baby?"

The other cop spoke up, "Yeah, Friday. Petrone's on family leave."

"Like Lucy really wants him around the house, making a mess and sucking down chocolate pudding."

Both officers laughed. "That's Vince, always with the damn pudding." Dugan said. The other cop flicked off his light. "Listen . . ."


"Alicea: I want you and your friends to get the hell inside. I don't know what they were doing up there but it looks dangerous. I'm not going to bust you for drinking outside, but I can't have anyone getting hurt. We have enough problems tonight, without having to deal with kids falling off a fire escape."

"I understand."

Dugan turned to me. "And you: aren't you a little old for this scene?"

I was about to mumble something when Alicea threw her arms around me. "This is my boyfriend," she said.

I smiled weakly at the two cops.

"You are over 17 years old, aren't you?" Dugan asked Alicea.

"Way over. Thank you so much, officer. If I don't see Vince, make sure you tell him I said hello."

"Will do."

Alicea pulled away from me as the police returned to their cruiser. As soon as the strobe light flickered out, she lost her balance and tumbled back into my arms. I carried her over to the base of the ladder.

"Thank God I don't wear a stupid costume," she mumbled. "And thank God he was sweating on me. And thank God his mind was so damn easy to read."

Travis slid down the ladder. "We're going to take JD through the third floor hall to the elevator; I don't have the energy to lift him, so we'll just take our chances."

Alicea nodded, then put her hands over her eyes.

"Is she OK?"

"She will be," I said. "She had to read the cop's mind to get you out of this mess. I'll stay with her, then help her get up . . ."

"I'll take care of her," Travis said, and he shot me a scowl that told me that he saw her grab me while she was conning the cop. I shrugged my shoulders- hey, it wasn't my idea- but Travis' eyes could melt lead as he hoisted Alicea to his side and pulled her up the ladder.


The cops didn't bother us again, which was a miracle since the Bashful Banana fire turned out to be a five-alarmer which led off the news for two days. Everyone knew there were superheroes involved, but the team caught a break: the Black Street Herd was so high profile that the Goths didn't warrant a mention, and the press referred to them as "an unknown vigilante gang." In the final tally, three Herd members died, but no civilians were seriously hurt in the melee. A good thing, too: the cops wouldn't investigate gang-on-gang violence with much fervor, but they would have torn the city up if a private citizen was killed.

Things got pretty claustrophobic in the apartment, though. This was the most dangerous hit the team had ever pulled, and they were scared. Julianna didn't even get out of bed the next morning, and Alicea woke up drinking, which wasn't like her. I tried to go out for donuts and coffee and JD nearly threw himself against the door. They thought Charlie McCoy himself was on every street corner looking for them. I couldn't blame them for being spooked; the fire was all over the news. But with the lights out and shades lowered in the dark apartment, everybody drinking and staring each other down, the paranoia could have driven them nuts.

All except Travis, at least. He calmly surfed the superhero sites on the net, using one of the access numbers Shorty Rock gave them. The battle, the explosions, the narrow escape in the alley, the deaths: it all rolled right off of him. He saw something on the network that caught his attention, though, and it nearly made him drop his keypad. "Guys, you have to read this," he said breathlessly.

The following item was posted, dated that morning:

DESPERATELY SEEKING the superhero team that fought the Black Street Herd in Atlantic City. A Manhattan-based organization may want to do business with you. If interested, contact the Valley Green Company at the URL listed below. Do not save this address, as it changes daily. Retrieve our street address from that site and send a representative to meet with us in person at our New York office. Any attempt to contact us through the network will nullify this unique business opportunity.

"Well, I'll be fucked," JD said while clutching an ice pack to his shoulder.

Travis nodded, scratching his chin. "Valley Green Company? That doesn't sound like a company interested in superheroes. Maybe they are looking for security guards, or corporate spies."

Alicea threw up her arms in disgust. "What's wrong with you? It's a sting! The McCoys are hoping we're dumb enough to walk right into our trap."

"You're right," JD said. "That's why they want us to appear in person."

Travis looked up from the monitor. He was clearly disappointed. He turned to me. "Is that all this is, Randy?"

"It might be, but it sounds pretty primitive for a McCoy trap."

"They don't have to use brilliant tactics to catch us," Alicea said, sneering. "After last night, we must look dumb enough to step right into anything."

Travis was annoyed. "Give me some credit."

"Why?" she said, storming into the kitchen for a drink. "You don't have any sense of when to quit. After last night, I can't believe that you're browsing the newsgroups." She brought back something like a quadruple cognac. "Haven't we caused enough destruction?"

"What happened last night was precisely the reason to hit the web today. And look what I found: somebody trying to contact us about a business proposition. This could be our big break."

That statement fell on the floor and laid there. I don't know if any of them, besides Travis, was really looking for a "big break" or a "big chance" or an "opportunity to make a difference." After the previous night, none of those things were on their minds. Alicea looked at him the way you look at a drunk on the street: you have pity, but you think he's beyond hope. And JD was just blank.

"I don't know," JD finally said. "I think we should just lay low. Ride things out until after the holidays."

Travis nodded, like he had given up arguing. "What about you?" he asked Alicea.

She fidgeted nervously. "I don't know what to say." She took a drink. "It's never been this bad before." Another drink. "Never this bad. I'm going to check on Julie."

Travis turned to me. "Why does this Valley Green Company want a face-to-face meeting?"

I sighed. "Basically, anybody can claim to be anyone on the net. These people didn't want to waste time talking to crackpots or Turing Machines or web avatars or anything else that can be used to communicate by audio or video. Then, of course, there's the matter of surveillance and the security of digital information."

Travis contacted the URL. JD shook his head and headed for the kitchen. "So you think they're legit?" Travis asked.

I said it was possible. They could have been organized crime figures looking for muscle, or just another superhero team trying to puff up their chests, or any of a hundred other organizations with an agenda. And yes, they could be the authorities. I laid it all out on the table as Travis took down their street address.

"I guess there's only one way to find out," he said. I could see in his eyes that he was going to make contact, to hell with what the rest of the team wanted.

I had to plan my coverage. "Are you going by yourself?" I asked. "JD knows the city better."

"Yeah, but JD's hurt, and he's had his thrills for the time being. I can't go, anyway: Alicea won't spring for a bus ticket. There is someone I know who can go."

"Who?" I was hoping he wouldn't suggest his kid sister.


I almost laughed. "Let's back up for a second, Travis: you guys are the story. I'm the reporter. I don't get involved."

"Except for last night, when you helped us lie to escape the cops." His expression suddenly soured. "Or was that just your way of copping a feel from my girl?"

That set me off. "Don't go there. You know damn well that's not true."

He backed off. "Sorry," he said, logging off the network and clutching the paper with the address. I was a little surprised to hear him apologize. "Sorry. I'm asking you for a favor and then I'm accusing you of something. That ain't right."

"Don't worry about it. But I'm not sticking my neck out for you."

"Look," he said, "either way, you have to investigate this Valley Green company, right? It's part of the story now, so you'll have to do some digging."

He had me there. I never like loose ends in my stories, so I planned to do some quick research on Valley Green as soon as the name came up. The easiest way to get accurate information would be for me to walk right up to the address on that paper and knock on the door.

"If I did go, you would probably have to follow me. Just think of this as following me, except that I'm not there."

I rolled my eyes. "Can't argue with that."

"C'mon," he said, "you gave us a ride when the man was bearing down on us. You helped us out last night. Don't back away now. Look around: JDs ready to take a month off to drink, who knows what the girls are thinking. If something doesn't shake loose from this Valley Green thing, you may not have a documentary. This might be the end."

He had me again. This web posting was a direct result of the fire. There had to be some follow through. And I was involved in the story the moment it started.

It made some sense for me to go. My journalist's credentials might get the door slammed in my face, but if it was the McCoy's, then I got a chance to rib them for such a dopey sting operation. They wouldn't pump me too hard to give away my sources, and the kids would be safe. Plus, it was a chance to run home for a few hours.

I took the paper from Travis' hand. "You realize that you may not hear what you want to hear. There's a big chance that this won't amount to anything."

He patted me on the shoulders, like I was his servant boy or something. "It won't amount to anything if we don't look into it."

"You just seem convinced someone is going to offer you money to play superhero or something. I don't know if you take disappointment well."

His eyes looked toward the closed door to Julianna's room, where Alicea and his sister were. "Disappointment isn't that bad, unless it comes from someone you thought you could trust."


Alicea crept into Julianna's bedroom, bringing with her a shaft of light into the otherwise dark space. Julianna sat cross-legged, propped up by pillows, staring out the window at the cold winter drizzle.

"What are you arguing about out there?" she asked. Her voice was a faint whisper.

Alicea sat on the edge of the bed. "Oh, just a net thing. A New York company left a classified looking for us. The guys think it's the ticket to fame and fortune."

"I don't want to go to New York."

"You won't have to." Alicea tugged at the blanket covering Julianna's legs. "Can I have a look at your bruise?"

Julianna nodded, and she pulled away the blanket. A deep purple lump extended along the outside of her thigh. Smaller bruises, some new, some old and faded, covered her knees and ankles. Alicea turned Julianna's leg to examine the wound, and the younger girl winced. The girl who yesterday pulled the trigger on her weapon and watched two young men die a moment later welled up with tears and jerked back her leg.

"You should have told us it was this bad," Alicea said.

Julianna covered herself in the blankets. "The explosion knocked a table into my leg," she said. "I didn't even feel it right away."

"We have Codinal if you need it. But remember: no booze with Codinal."

"I may take some later."

They fell silent for a moment, Julianna flicking the blinds while Alicea watched her.

"You can talk to me," Alicea finally said.

Julianna pointed at the floater hanging over Alicea's shoulder.

"Don't worry about that," Alicea said. "No one will see this if I tell Randy not to show it. I could pull that down right now if you want me to."

Julianna shook her head. "Last night, when I killed those guys . . ."

Alicea reached across the bed and placed a tender arm on Julianna's shoulder. "Julie, you didn't kill anyone. They were the ones who stripped the safeties off their rifle casings. They were the ones shooting at your brother. You were just trying to knock them out. Don't blame yourself for what happened."

Julianna kept staring out the window. "I guess you're right," she said absently.

They were quiet again. Alicea rubbed the younger girl's shoulder and tickled her chin, trying vainly to coax a smile from her. Julianna shrugged her away at first, then turned and offered her the faintest grin.

"You can still smile," Alicea said. "Good sign."

Alicea stood to leave when Julianna spoke again. "When the fire started," she asked, "do you remember the smell?"

Alicea turned back. "No I don't. I remember the noise, and that damn plug music, and the heat. I remember feeling the fear streaming out of everyone's minds, thoughts so loud that I heard them above the shouts. And I remember seeing you trapped there, and seeing Travis toss JD across his shoulders like a bag of laundry. But not the smell."

Julianna nodded. "I remember the smell. I guess that the bottles behind the bar caught fire, and the glasses on the tables and the liquor on the floor. The smell was so sweet. It was almost syrupy, like the syrup they pack cherries in."

Her eyes grew wide, and Julianna began staring absently at the bare wall behind Alicea. "I was standing there," she continued, "my finger still on the controls, and I was blinded by the flash. When I focused, one of those Herd guys was on fire. He was jumping and dancing and screaming, and all I could think was: this whole place smells like cherries, like a goddamned flaming dessert."

Alicea went to Julianna's bedside. Julianna hugged her, resting her face beside Alicea's belly. "I still smell the damn cherries. The smell is burnt into my nose. It smells like death to me."

Alicea rested a palm on Julianna's forehead, and stared out the window as the younger girl began weeping silently. After a moment, Alicea broke down herself, and the two of them cried together.

Chapter 8

Different Languages

We aren't supposed to know that agencies like Valley Green exist.

According to government policy, the Vigilante Prevention Amendments were absolute and total. Only government agents are authorized to use CFC or superconductive weapons. Private citizens are banned from using such weapons. No body-enhancing drugs. No flight packs. Period. Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

In reality, nothing is ever that easy. Captains of industry need security personnel armed with the latest hardware. Corporations need sleuths for internal security and investigations, and souped-up bodies and hardware are advantageous when available. The rich and powerful weren't about to allow Washington to corner the market on high-tech weaponry, and they dispatched their lobbyists the moment VPA was ratified.

Hence the existence of organizations like Valley Green, a fully licensed provider of superpowered investigators and bodyguards for those wealthy enough to afford such amenities. Tucked away in one of Manhattan's thousands of high-rise offices, the unassuming corporation does it's level best to attract as little attention as possible. That's why its name isn't exactly evocative, and you can't find them in the yellow pages. They publish a web site (it would be suspicious if they didn't) full of vague language and double-talk, designed to bore the reader into moving on, unless he knows what he's looking for.

Getting an interview with anyone at Valley Green is nearly impossible. It takes impressive credentials and a promise of absolute anonymity. Smart readers have probably already realized that Valley Green Agency isn't really called Valley Green Agency, and Salome DuPree, the woman I met on behalf of the Goths, isn't really named Salome DuPree.

"A famous soul singer contacted us eight months ago," Salome explained as we talked in her spacious, tastefully decorated office. She was a tall, slender woman with mounds of black curls and café-latte skin. "This individual was being harassed by a stalker for months. Conventional security guards weren't able to catch him."

She poured herself a glass of water. In her blue business suit, she looked more like a stock trader than a clandestine operative. "We dispatched an agent who had undergone optic surgery as a child. Visual acuity in his surgically-implanted eye was 5-times better than in a conventional eye. Essentially, our operative had 20/4 vision. Furthermore, the surgical eye was equipped with a recording device which could be up-linked with image recognition software."

"Did he catch the stalker?"

"In three days. He spotted the same person in two concert crowds at two different cities. He approached the suspect, took a voice sample, matched it to a recorded phone conversation, and gave the evidence to local authorities."

She stood and gazed out the window, the Manhattan skyline framing her silhouette. "It would have been impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive, to canvas each concert crowd with cameras, then hire agents to review hundreds of hours of tape. Unfortunately, that's how the FBI suggested our client handle that case. The government doesn't use surgically enhanced operatives at all."

"You're in a unique position."

"As are you," she said, coming around her desk and sitting in a chair beside me. "I wasn't expecting a celebrity guest."

I explained about the documentary, and how the kids feared a trap and refused to come to New York.

"It's a thin line between wise caution and foolish paranoia," she mused. "The paranoid distrust everyone, yet they are oddly unprepared when enemies really strike."

My eyebrows arched. "That was cryptic."

She smiled coyly. "Sorry. There just seems to be an odd confluence of interest descending upon this ragged little band of thugs in Atlantic City."

"I stumbled into them to do a story. That's my interest. What's yours?"

"I have none, with the team at least. Valley Green, on the other hand, is interested in recruiting one of them. Specifically, Alicea Mann."

I nodded. A security agency like Valley Green could find about a billion uses for someone with Alicea's unique gifts.

"Telepathy is easily the rarest and most valuable meta-human ability we've encountered," she continued. "Even someone who can only a catch a stray emotion under controlled conditions will find the asking price for her talents quite impressive in certain circles. Some governments employ gleaners, who aren't really telepaths but ultra-skilled readers of body language and facial expression, as spies and negotiators. Alicea Mann is far more gifted than any gleaner, yet she's slumming with a garage gang."

"True," I replied. "It's a waste of her abilities. She's toiling in obscurity. Which makes me wonder: how does your organization even know she exists?"

Anxiety flashed across Salome's otherwise inscrutable features. "We've had . . . operatives in the Atlantic City area."

I leaned forward. "Could you elaborate a little?"

She didn't want to tell me any more, but she could tell I wasn't backing down. After all, what would a firm like Valley Green be doing canvassing the hoods of Atlantic City? "We were employed to follow an individual called Dennis Zane. That is all I can tell you."

And that was all she would tell me, even though I begged for more. Zane? No one with the money to afford Valley Green should have had any interest in him, according to my research. The guy was a wage-slave before he went ballistic. Who wanted him tailed? Why? Salome didn't reach her position by being a source of easy answers. "Mr. Zane isn't precisely what he appeared to be," was all the additional information she would provide.

"Our operative was within the tavern when the incident took place," she explained. "He saw Ms. Mann in combat and suspected that she might have telepathic abilities. As she wasn't disguised, he was able to provide us with a facial sketch, we got a computer match, and we found out who she was. Your little garage gang isn't very clever about concealing their identities."

"Well, they wouldn't have agreed to appear on television if they were."

Salome laughed. "Can you take a message back to Ms. Mann?"

I told her I would be happy to, and she wrote a brief note. I watched her write a dollar figure, presumably a salary or contract incentive, and my eyes couldn't help but widen as I saw her form the little loops that represent three zeroes strung onto the end of a figure. More than I make, and maybe twenty times what a garment warehouse manager earns.

"You realize," I said, "that Alicea might not take your offer."

Salome looked surprised, but it was my turn to be elliptical. I could have told her about Alicea's reluctance to pursue the vigilante gig, about Travis and his manipulations, but she wasn't forthcoming about Valley Green or Dennis Zane and I saw no reason to be charitable. I just slipped the note in my breast pocket.

"I sincerely hope she does," Salome said, "and not just because I think she would be a valuable addition to our corporation. We both know how nasty this business is, Mr. Stone, even for our operatives with considerable resources at their disposal." She came around her desk to shake my hand, clasping it firmly while staring at me knowingly. "Out there in the streets, life can be very cheap."


Now reader, if you are the suspicious type, as I am, you may begin to get the impression that more was going on than my little documentary about superheroes. I was thinking the same thing as I drove back to Jersey. It didn't surprise me that Valley Green was interested in Alicea, but the story about tracking Dennis Zane didn't add up. Ms. Salome probably had a thick file of classified information tucked in her desk, and the contents of that file might reveal that more was going on at the Bashful Banana than a midlife crisis gone violent and a gang skirmish erupting from a misunderstanding. But that file would never be cracked open. Was there more to Zane than I uncovered, or was there some sort of setup involved: to catch the Black Street Herd, or the Goths, or maybe just Alicea? Throw in Mr. Wasserman's unusual interest in my story, and I was beginning to get downright paranoid.

Suspicions are like opinions and assholes: we all have one, but only the last thing does us any good. In this business, you deal with the story you have until it changes. Ms. Salome expressed no more to me than an interest in hiring Alicea, and that was all I was going back to Atlantic City to report.

Oh, I did some more research on Zane. Actually, I called the office and had some interns do it. Dennis Zane: brokerage house employee, Philadelphia, PA. Divorced, no children. Nothing of interest in his personal life. That in itself was a bit odd: nobody has nothing of interest, not in this day and age. We all made the local paper when we scored 16 points for the high school basketball team, or made the company newsletter for employee of the month, or something which places a few scraps of identification beside our name when someone performs a web search. But Zane had only his demographics, a job, a marriage and a divorce. His wife and employers weren't talking, but Zane didn't handle the kind of money to attract Valley Green's attention, so his trail was ice cold.

By the time I reached the city, I had little time to pursue side stories. The fire at the Bashful Banana brought a full McCoy Unit to the city, and the Black Street Herd was their primary target. The officers brought their own camera crews with them. I stopped and watched as an officer, dressed in full flight armor minus the mask, instructed a class of school children while a PR officer recorded it. The fed let the kids touch his flight pack and try on his helmet, then explained to them the dangers of joining vigilante gangs and posses. It was a cute scene, and a calculated tactic: the ATF maintains high visibility without sacrificing public relations, all the while increasing the likelihood that some tot rats out his neighbor or dad or older brother as being in The Herd.

Finally, I returned to the Goth headquarters, dropping a bomb on their world as I dropped Salome's offer in Alicea's lap.

"What do they want me to do?" Alicea asked, her eyes bulging at the financial incentive on the note.

"Become a spy," I said flatly.

Travis read the note over her shoulder. "This could be our big chance," he said hopefully.

"Travis," I said. "There is no `we.' This offer was meant for Alicea."

He waved me off. "I know that. But Alicea could probably get established, then bring the rest of us in later. It may not be the arrangement of my dreams, but it will give us a chance to do some good."

Alicea thought for a moment, her hands shaking as she re-read the note. She looked to Julianna, who was slumped on the couch, coughing and sweating from a fever. Alicea clenched the note in both hands, twisted and tore it. "No," she said. "I can't do this."

There was that momentary pause, like the wait between lighting flash and thunder, when all of us waited for Travis to erupt. Julianna's cough silenced; even JD looked up from his drink. Travis squeezed his fists, struggling to control his emotions. He barely choked out the words. "Don't do this to me," he said. "We need to talk."

Travis slammed the door behind him, keeping me and my camera out of the room. The room was miked, of course, but it wasn't necessary, as I could easily hear the seething Travis rip into Alicea.

"What do you mean, 'you aren't interested?'"

"I'm not. I don't want to go to New York. I don't know anything about this 'Valley Green' company, and I don't want to know."

The floorboards creaked; Travis was pacing. "Alicea, I think you're being a little selfish. . ."

This time it was Alicea's turn to lash out. "How dare you call me selfish? Who the hell keeps a roof over your head?"

"Damn it, how can you pass up an opportunity like this for us?"

"How is this an opportunity for us? Valley Green wants me, not you."

"They don't want me right now, but this could be our chance to get a foot in the door. You could go work for them, get established, then try to get them to hire the rest of the team next time they're recruiting. It might not be an independent gig, but it beats government work, and it sure beats waiting around this shit hole apartment for the feds to knock on the door and take us away."

There was a pause before Alicea spoke, this time in calmer, more measured tones. "I had no idea that this apartment was holding you down. I thought this was the only thing that gave our lives any semblance of balance or normalcy. But all it is to you is a reminder that things aren't working out exactly the way you wanted them to."

"It's not like that."

"It is. All my sacrifices for this team don't mean anything to you. You haven't even taken them for granted; it's worse than that. You've resented them, haven't you? I've been trying to build a life for us, but as far as you're concerned, I've just built a prison for you."

"You just don't get it Alicea. You can talk all you want about your damn sacrifices. I don't see any sacrifices. You've done exactly what you wanted to do: get a normal job, live like Miss Average American. What about sacrifices for the team?"

Alicea's tone was incredulous. "Sacrifices for the team?"

"Yes. How about pulling yourself together more often so you can go out on patrol after work? How about picking a nickname and a fucking costume so we don't look like idiots when we do our job? How about at least making the most of a chance like this to join a firm like Valley Green and give the rest of us some hope? You just won't do it. That's why I'm telling you you're being selfish."

Alicea's next words were very quiet; I had to pull them off of the microphone feed later. "That's funny. I thought when I let you max out my credit cards, I was making a sacrifice. I thought that every time I spent the night crying because I had a migraine from trying to extract information from the kids you beat up. . . I thought those were sacrifices. But the only sacrifice you'll accept is my life. You won't be satisfied until I've abdicated every shred of control over my own destiny."

"Now you're being dramatic."

"Travis, get out."

"Are you throwing me out?"

"God damn it, I'm such a fool."

"Are you throwing me out?"

Her scream shook the pipes and echoed through the heating vents; the whole building must have heard it. "What the hell does it sound like? Get out of my apartment! Get the hell out of here. "

Travis came out of the room and slammed the door behind him. He appeared angry, but also afraid. He stopped and pointed at me furiously, as if he was about to tell me something, but he didn't speak. He just shook his head and stormed into the bathroom.

"He'll be back," JD said calmly.

I turned to him. Through the whole argument, he had sat silently on the couch sipping Hennessey, never blinking at the strong words we could clearly hear through the door.

"You sound sure," I said.

He nodded. "She throws somebody out every week or so. Sometimes me. Usually him. He'll disappear tonight so she can cool down."

Travis was in costume when he left the bathroom. He barely acknowledged us as he left the apartment. "I'm going out," was all he said, although he spoke directly to neither of us.

"Where does he go?" I asked JD. I would have to follow Travis in a situation like this. Who knows what he might do in his aroused state? I needed to get the story, of course, but I felt obligated to try to keep the kid from doing something he might regret.

JD just took a long drink. "Who the hell cares?" was his response.


The first time I tracked the team on patrol, I was prepared for nighttime reconnaissance: the minicam was set for wide-angle recording, the floater was programmed for high flight, and most importantly, I was in the driver's seat of the van and ready for action. When Travis stormed out the door of the apartment, nothing was prepared. I had to break down the whole floater and minicam apparatus, then rush out to the van giving Travis a ten-minute head start. There was no time to program the floater to follow him, and there was no guarantee that I would find him in the first place. I just started the van and followed my instincts, hoping that an enraged superhero would leave a distinctive trail. If Travis was taking out his aggressions on every teenager who spat on the sidewalk, he wouldn't be too hard to find.

I followed the route of his regular patrol, but to no avail. It was a windy, frigid night, the kind that even keeps the worst elements indoors. The drug supermarket street corners were mostly deserted, so Travis might have been patrolling his usual route without finding any reason to leave his concealment on the rooftops or in the dark alleyways. Which, I thought, was a good thing, as I would hate to be the first pimp or pusher Travis came across.

I circled around the worst neighborhoods in the city for almost an hour before giving up. There were a bunch of kids, older teenagers for the most part, strutting right down Virginia Avenue in the middle of the street, smoking chronic and drinking 55's out of paper bags and blaring their radios. I could smell their hooch from ten blocks away, they were creating a disturbance to wake the dead, and Virginia Avenue was a regular stop on Travis' route. These kids might as well have been wearing targets on their back, but no Travis. He must not have been patrolling, which meant that I was off the trail.

So, if I were Travis, and I just had a fight with my girlfriend, but for some reason I didn't feel like a head-busting session in the streets of Atlantic City, where would I go? That train of thought didn't lead me very far. Two weeks in close quarters with the kid made me familiar with him, but I didn't have him completely nailed down. What did Travis like, besides being a superhero and playing video games? He was a bit of a drinker, and possibly a gambler, which meant he could be virtually anywhere in the city.

So I gave up, headed for the old casino district, and went in search of a corned beef sandwich on the boardwalk. Stepping onto the actual boards was like wandering into a wind tunnel. A gale was whipping off the ocean and slamming right into the casino hotels, shaking signs and street lamps and rattling windows. Ferry service to the atoll was shut down, and the only brave souls on the boardwalk beside myself were the die-hard gamblers racing from gaming hall to gaming hall. I turned up the collar on my trench coat and tightened my scarf, determined to survive until I could find a casino with a half-decent deli.

And that's when I saw him. Actually, the motionless black figure silhouetted against the faint reflections of casino lights on the ocean could have been a bag of trash, a stray dog, or just about anything else. But something told me that I had lucked into Travis, so I drew closer to the fence to have a better look. It was him, kneeling cross-legged at the edge of the lapping waves, facing directly out to sea.

I stepped out onto the sand. As the beach dipped toward the ocean, the wind grew even more intense, and I was nearly knocked over by one gust. Sand blew across my exposed forehead like icy needles. The beach seemed like the most forbidding place on earth on a December night, but Travis just sat, as though he was surrounded by tranquility.

"Don't disturb me, Randy," he said as I approached. His eyes were closed; I didn't ask how he knew it was me. His hands rested upon his knees, palms stretched upward. His shield lay in front of him, now half covered by blowing sand. He was meditating, something I didn't expect from the likes of him.

We stayed there, silently, for several minutes. Travis sat silently while I hopped around, stomping my feet for warmth, wondering how he could possibly shut out his surroundings. Finally, his eyes opened and he leapt to his feet. He picked up his shield and began walking south along the beach. I jogged into place beside him.

"No camera?" he asked.

I explained that I wasn't expecting to run into him.

"That's a shame. I'm sure your television story will have plenty of scenes with me and the others pounding people. You'll have no problem showing us getting drunk, either. And that fight Alicea and I just had: I'm sure the world will be treated to every last moment of that."

"I didn't think you cared."

He shot me an icy look. "You're wrong. Which is why it all makes sense. Your program will include lots of scenes which make me look like some kind of reckless punk, but a quiet moment on the beach? No way that'll make the cut."

"I didn't know you meditated."

"I don't call it meditation. It's just an opportunity to listen to my own thoughts. I need the ocean beside me to drown out the atoll and the casinos and the noise of just being alive. It keeps me sharp. A good, terrible night like tonight can even get Alicea out of my mind for a few minutes."

"You know that you two were speaking two different languages tonight," I said to him.

He stopped in his tracks. "We never had that problem. She used to go right up here," he said, tapping his head. "She could read me like yesterday's news. She always knew what I wanted."

He began to walk again, and I followed. "Yeah, she knew what you wanted, but did you know what she wanted?"

"It was her job to tell me that. I'm not a mind reader."

"It was your job to listen."

He stopped again, turning angrily to face me. "Look, who the hell are you? I thought reporters weren't supposed to get involved. We're letting you do this story, but it would be a lot easier if you could stay the hell out of it."

"It was okay for me to interfere when I was scoping out Valley Green for you. Look, I'm just trying to figure out where you're coming from."

Travis knew I had a point: I was this involved in their lives at his request. As far as my editors would be concerned, I was already way over the line, so it made sense for me to keep pushing to get the most out of these kids.

But frustrating Travis with logic probably wasn't a wise move. He looked primed to take a swing at me, but instead lifted his buckler and heaved it out across the ocean. The silver saucer caught a thermal updraft over the water and was pushed back to land, arching over a few hundred feet of sand before sticking, nearly upright, into one off the treated logs which mark offshore jetties.

"You know exactly where I'm coming from. I have no secret plans. I have no hidden agendas. I brought them all out here. I made a life for my sister. I saved Alicea from her parents and that rich-bitch life. I did it all for them. You know that I've dedicated my life to making a difference. I have not wavered. If you're looking for someone who can't make up their mind, or who says one thing and does another, then go talk to that sunny day superhero I live with."

As he sprinted away to retrieve his shield, I realized that it wasn't me he was trying to run away from. It was his own self doubt. Travis wasn't just mad about Alicea's decision not to join Valley Green. Deep down, he was afraid that she had made the right decision. Nobody who affirms his conviction as often as Travis does is as devoted to his purpose as he would like to be. When Travis felt his dedication waning, he took it out on Alicea, someone who has never been soft-spoken about her doubts. Travis not only used Alicea for her money, but for her willingness to express things he couldn't accept, and he rewarded her honesty with his abuse.

He was halfway up the beach when the explosion rang off the pylons of the boardwalk and the windows of the casinos. He whirled around to track the location of the blast, as did I, but we were chasing echoes. In a few seconds, a plume of smoke became visible over the island. Travis ran to it, and I followed.


It was hard to make sense of the scene. Everybody was out of their homes: little kids on bikes, teenage mothers clutching their infants, old folks huddled in groups. With ash and debris still falling from the building and a firefight raging in the street, none of these people were safe outside, but they stayed and watched the spectacle as if it were staged for their entertainment.

Firefighters trained their hoses on what was left of the four-story building, now a gutted skeleton collapsed onto itself and suffocated in smoke. The police were wise enough to provide escort into that part of town, but they didn't count on the Black Street Herd. Service revolvers were no match for CFC weapons; all the police could do is protect the firefighters with riot shields as Herd members took potshots and shouted invective at the authorities through their loudspeakers.

Travis leapt into the fray, quickly knocking a few jammers unconscious before they could react, but he was alone, and the Herd had plenty of guns on the scene. He dove behind a mailbox to escape getting fried, then spotted me taking cover in an open doorway.

As he crawled along the street to join me, the McCoys arrived. Three officers in full armor hovered down from the sky like archangels. When they engaged their loudspeakers, it overwhelmed the entire city block, drowning out the Herd and the hoses and everything else. "Citizens, return to your homes," they announced and the voice felt like it was inside your head. "Anyone currently in possession of a CFC weapon is under arrest for violating the Vigilante Prevention Amendments."

About a half dozen herd members trained their weapons on the McCoys, including one guy in full armor who must have had a high yield CFC generator strapped to his back. It looked like ground lightning, and the air stunk of ozone after they fired. One of the McCoys took a hit, but wasn't seriously damaged. The others flew away from the onslaught and strafed the ground with fire. Their shots were deadly accurate, sending some of the Herd sprawling for cover while neutralizing others.

"This is out of control," I said as the McCoy officers floated to the ground and drew fire away from the firefighters.

"They think the Herd blew up that building," Travis said.

"It sure looks that way."

Travis shook his head. "That's the new youth center. It's probably the only positive thing in this neighborhood. They wouldn't torch that."

He was right. The Herd was supposed to be a pro-social organization, their philosophy being to take over the streets so drug dealers couldn't. They were often overzealous, of course, attacking homosexuals as threats to society and engaging in trumped-up racial skirmishes with the police, but they protected poor neighborhoods. They didn't burn them down.

"Another accident?" I suggested. "Like the Banana?"

"Maybe. Maybe they were trying to nail the perp when all hell broke loose."

A Herd assault vehicle careened around the corner. It was a heavy Chevy with some big guns bolted to the hood, and the kid in the makeshift pillbox wasn't shy about pulling the trigger. We retreated deeper into the doorway, and the few stragglers who didn't take cover when the feds arrived scrambled for cover. We couldn't see the shot that took out the firefighters from our new vantage point, but the eerie dance of the untended hose lunging into the air and slithering along the street told us what happened.

"They're lashing out now," I said. "This is just rage."

"Let me use your phone," Travis asked. "I'll get the team down here."

"Why, so you can all get arrested or killed?"

Travis started to get angry, but realized I was right.

The assault vehicle kept shooting up the street. A McCoy took to the air, CFC fire trailing him as he rose, but he ascended out of the range of the big gun. The armored officer turned his body in the air as his shoulder mounted weapon locked into place.

I held my ears just before the missile impacted. The assault vehicle disappeared behind a wall of smoke. Hubcaps sliced through the air, crashing into buildings at the other end of the block. For a few seconds it rained auto parts.

It was safe to go out on the street after that. Some more local cops arrived and helped the McCoys seal off the street. Additional fire units arrived. What was left of the Herd beat a quick retreat.

As things settled, I approached one of the McCoys flashing my press credential. I wanted to know who they suspected in the explosion, who authorized the use of percussion missiles, and about a thousand other things. The officer cut me off before I could ask any questions.

"I'm only authorized to make a brief statement," he said. "The escalation in violence here in Atlantic City in recent days has been disturbing. Peace and order must be maintained. It's the duty of the Anti-Vigilante Unit- or the McCoys, as we're called- to do all that is necessary and proper to protect the innocent and incarcerate those who use vigilante weapons to promote lawlessness."

My portable phone rang. It was Gus. "Randy, we need you to do the network story. You're the only reporter near the scene."

"Near the scene?" I shouted. "I'm at the scene. It's like the Bed-Stuy riots out here!"

"It's just the press corps, Randy. You can handle them"

It took a second for me to realize that we weren't talking about the same thing.

"I don't know anything about a firefight," Gus explained. "All I know is that Atoll security cameras have pictures of Joe Bell in bed with three underage girls. The video hit the web about three hours ago. The hotel administrators have a press conference planned in one hour, and we want a top gun there. Plus, you have a good relationship with Bell."

My mind whirled. I watched small fires peter out in trash cans, listened as mothers consoled children terrified by the heat and noise. Residents began sweeping broken glass from the sidewalks, a few looters turned the corner but were scared off by the feds. It was all crazy, the world turned upside down, and Gus was the craziest one of all.

"Boss, airlift the Philly Bureau people in for the fucking conference. I just watched the McCoy's blow up a city block."

He was quiet. "Are you OK?" he finally asked.

I paused. "Let me get back to you on that," I said, and I flipped the phone shut.

Chapter 9

Superhero Games

The history of the Vigilante Prevention Acts, the superhero subculture, and the McCoy Units can be traced back to the year 2017, and to the think tank of a small chemical engineering contractor in New Mexico called Alight Technologies. It was there that three young turk scientists stumbled across the energy source which came to be known as compressed fusion. The name is inappropriate; the technique for safely preserving and releasing chemical energy with amazing efficiency had nothing to do with atomic fusion, and there was nothing really "compressed" about it. But the marketing gurus at Alight coined the term when they began marketing their batteries, which were hundreds of times more powerful than the batteries available at the time. The company rode its Compressed Fusion Capacitors, or CFCs, to the top of the stock market.

This is not the place for a scientific treatise on compressed fusion, and I'm not the person to give it to you. Depending on the types of chemicals used and the amount of them, it's possible to create CFC's of varying power-yields. Most people nowadays only know about Minimal-Yield CFC's, the only legal type. Originally, all CFCs were commercially available except the largest models, the ancestors of today's high-yield CFCs. Alight made high-yields available only to the government and licensed commercial operations as a company policy, not under government coercion. This is one of those incidents in history in which technology tragically outstripped government policy. Uninformed users sometimes put CFCs into the same appliances that ran on alkaline batteries; portable stereos exploded on people's ears in a few cases. Father's Day barbecues were cooked on grills supercharged with low-yield (and sometimes moderate yield) CFCs; sometimes the neighborhood would get cooked too. The government stepped in and passed a few sane regulations, Alight made a sincere effort to educate consumers, and domestic accidents soon subsided.

The development of CFC power and, to a lesser extent, superconductors, changed society for the better. That fact is often lost when I dive into stories of vigilante mayhem, where it seems that the only use for this great energy is to turn another human being into a pile of ash. These energies, as well as other technologies derived from them, account for over 20% of our nation's power. The CFC has helped developing nations achieve sound economic footing by providing them with a cheap power source without squandering their natural resources. It has greatly reduced our reliance on fossil fuels. It's sometimes fashionable to blame technology for our problems; that's just not appropriate in this case.

The potential of CFC's for use in weapons was seized immediately by the military, but it didn't take long for commercial weapon manufacturers to catch on. A company called Norcross Rifles developed a CFC-powered pellet launcher. The weapon had greater range and firing speed than any semi-automatic weapon on the market, and its ammunition was far cheaper. The gun cost $1800, about twice what a comparable weapon sold for at the time. Six months after it's release, it was the most popular weapon in the country.

About a year after Alight announced the development of the CFC, a pharmaceutical concern out of Pennsylvania began marketing DelNecra, the first of the "safe" muscle growth hormones. DelNecra was approved by the FDA only for very specific purposes: rehabilitating severely injured limbs, treatment of muscular disorders, and the like. Once the public realized how much muscle DelNecra grew, and how quickly, demand became intense. Doctors became prescription-happy, giving patients access to the drug as a treatment for mundane fatigue disorders and other minor ailments.

DelNecra was a fad for about two years at the end of the 2010's. A well-known former senator, a man of around seventy, revealed on a talk show that he was taking the medication, and his testimonial was backed up by video tape of the elderly gentleman chopping wood on his ranch and wrestling with a calf. The drug was said to be an aphrodisiac for older men, which further fanned public interest. Comedians made jokes about the drug; fitness gurus recommended it as an essential part of any fitness regimen. About 5% of all Americans over 18 were prescription DelNecra users by 2019, and another 5% of the population were probably getting their hands on it one way or another.

The problem with DelNecra was fundamentally the same as the problems with Rae-Tae, Phinny-Bar, and any of the dozen or so other super-steroids currently on the illegal market. The drugs build muscle faster and more efficiently than nature can account for, but few of them provide similar benefits to bones, cartilage, ligaments, or the cardio-vascular system. Used responsibly, this is not a problem: these drugs can round out the body nicely, and with regular exercise can enhance the quality of life. Used irresponsibly, as these drugs usually are, they can turn an ordinary person into 300 pounds of muscle crammed onto a frame designed to max out at 160 lbs.

The ugly effects of over-zealous DelNecra use inevitably led to the end of the prescription boom. People were tearing the cartilage in their knees to shreds while trying to drag their over-muscled bodies up a flight of stairs. A 425-lb. college football player had a coronary during pregame warmups: his parents revealed that he had weighed pounds just 18 months earlier. Strict guidelines for the use of the drug were enacted and enforced. Unfortunately, illegal trade in the drug had already begun, and DelNecro was available in every gymnasium in America.

With the simultaneous developments of cheap, portable power sources and a new generation of strength-enhancing chemicals, what had once been the stuff of science fiction rapidly became reality. Blaster weapons developed quickly through the 2020's, hitting the market in all their variety: lasers, microwave weapons, pulse guns, etc. The government usually got around to banning each new variety of weapon about a year after it hit the market, but special-interest groups ensured that no sweeping bans were passed which would eliminate all CFC weapons. What laws were passed were usually technologically naïve, tied to the exact specifications of one particular aspect of the weapon, allowing manufacturers to circumvent the spirit of the law by making minor modifications to the hardware. In the 2020's it was possible to walk into Omnimart with a credit card and walk out with a pulse weapon powerful enough to knock down the walls of your neighbor's house.

When it came to keeping up with new weapon designs, the criminal element moved much more quickly than law enforcement. There were spectacular firefights in the streets of several big cities in the 2020s. In a well-known Brooklyn riot in 2025, the police were so out-gunned that the National Guard was brought in. (I was 14 at the time and lived with my mother and older brother in Tribecca. We took the bus across town to watch Brooklyn burn from across the river). The chief of police for Los Angeles County unveiled a detailed plan for dealing with high-tech violence after a similar riot a few months later. His plan called for "progressive policing," which meant that the force maintained a high community profile and a positive public image, combined with a concerted effort to maintain technological superiority. Many other cities quickly adopted similar plans.

That chief of police was named Charlie McCoy.

The McCoy plan worked in a few big cities, but it just wasn't feasible for the police force in a poor city to keep pace with the changes in technology. The money just wasn't there. While the New York and Los Angeles police forces bought shiny, first-generation armored battle suits from the military, it was all other cities could do to provide the men in blue with a sturdy CFC rifle, some insulated shielding, and enough training to use these devices properly. Meanwhile, these under-gunned, undertrained cops made a valiant effort to institute "progressive policing." This mild-mannered approach was often effective, but when it failed, it failed spectacularly, and the public began to perceive their local police force as soft and ineffectual.

The sad truth was that a private citizen had the means to be better armed than the police. It didn't take long for private citizens to decide that they were more effective at law enforcement, as well.


The First United Methodist Church of Gainesville, Florida, burned to the ground in August of 2022 in what was believed to be an isolated act of racial violence. The perpetrators were quickly rounded up and prosecuted; most considered the matter cleared up until six months later, when a Georgia church was burned under similar circumstances. Again, a few suspects were brought to justice, but it didn't prevent another incident in Florida just a few months later.

The string of church burnings came to be known as the White Lightning fires. The FBI did its best to conceal the fact that the arsonists left a distinctive calling card at each crime- a ceramic lightning bolt- but the press ferreted out the information. There was a new hate group in the south, and they were armed with modern weapons small and powerful enough to demolish a building in minutes. Their reign of terror extended over five states for six years, the authorities always one step behind them. Hundreds of gang members were brought to justice during that period, and some squealed on regional organization leaders and chieftains, but White Lightning had loyal members and considerable resources.

Six years of frustration in southern cities built to the point where citizens began to act in their own defense. Twenty-four hour neighborhood watches were enacted around possible target churches. It was an unspoken assumption that some watch members were armed, and were as likely to take action themselves as to call the police if they saw anything suspicious. A minister in South Carolina allegedly armed parishioners with CFC weapons, although such allegations were vehemently denied by everyone, as were suggestions that some churches had hired "ringers," private investigators with suspiciously powerful bodies, to guard church grounds. These neighborhood watches appeared to work: White Lightning did not strike from October or 2027 through March of 2029, and when they did strike, they paid for it.

In what later turned out to be part of an elaborate sting operation, the mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee publicly outlawed all neighborhood watch organizations within the city, claiming that college students and visitors were being harassed by overzealous citizens. Three weeks later, White Lightning descended upon a Baptist church in Knoxville, and the citizen patrol descended on them. The public saw for the first time what kind of arsenal this hate organization brought to bear: CFC generated microwave weapons, foreign-designed battle armor, and a fully-equipped entourage of goons to protect the main firebug if trouble broke out. When trouble did break out, it turned out that White Lightning had the hardware but not the training. An under-gunned citizen army, with civic pride and holy fervor on their side, easily defeated them in a battle that lit up the streets of Knoxville. Having been caught red-handed for the first time, the supremacists were less frosty about selling out their superiors, and the FBI finally had a crack in the case that would lead to the upper echelons of the organization.

The Knoxville Incident caught the imagination of the media. The town's mayor was hailed as a hero throughout the state; the governor gave an impassioned speech about the spirit of "the new Tennessee Volunteers." A movie was quickly produced. Meanwhile, the normally cool headed hosts of morning news shows were seriously suggesting that citizen "posses" represented a legitimate adjunct to traditional law enforcement. In some cities, police chiefs deputized citizen task forces, providing them with training in situations ranging from surveillance to crowd control to, in a few cases, criminal apprehension and combat. Elsewhere, armed neighborhood watches sprung up without government assistance or blessing, organized by pastors, leading citizens, or taxpayers with chips on their shoulders.

Lawmakers were again caught off guard, as they were when CFCs first hit the street. States like California banned what were then called "posses" outright; a few others recognized only posses sanctioned by local sheriffs. New York State only required that such groups register and charter through a government watchdog agency. That might have worked just fine in Albany or Syracuse, but by 2036, when the Vigilante Prevention Acts were passed, there were over 80 chartered organizations in New York City: The Subway Angels, Street Survivors, the Kings of Queens, the Bed-Stuy Herd, Triboro Protection, the Old School Herd, and countless others. And that count didn't count covert associations like Valley Green, or loosely affiliated street gangs with impressive hardware and indeterminate motivations, of which there were thousands.

Under those conditions, it's not surprising that it took just a few years for heroic citizen posses to turn into vigilantes.


Those who blame plug music for the rise in the superhero culture among teenagers have probably forgotten that it was an old-fashioned rap recording, "SH-1" by Base Tone, which started the superhero fad just a few months after Knoxville. The rap glorified the exploits of a neighborhood defender, a "superhero" in a polished gold battle suit. Coming on the heels of Knoxville, the violence of the lyrics didn't seem that disturbing, as the heavies in the parable were White Lightning-types who harassed kids and burned down buildings. A dozen copycat songs followed; a rap group called Slam Down Herd declared themselves to be superheroes, wearing armored breastplates in their videos and concerts and focusing nearly all their songs on defeating one or another menace to the hood. The group itself faded into obscurity, but the appellation "herd" came to be applied to many vigilante teams for years to come.

All of this was innocent fun; it wasn't inciting kids to riot in the schools or kill each other. This was harmless, wholesome music, after all. Parents let their kids dress as SH-1 for Halloween. There was a revival of the old superhero characters from comics and cartoons. Creaky old science fiction writers spoke on television about the exciting era we were living in, in which the stuff of fantasy was becoming possible. Kids told their parents they wanted to be superheroes when they grew up, and in the states where it was encouraged, teenagers signed up for the local posse as if they were joining the town soccer team.

This was not even 20 years ago, although it seems a lifetime away. My brother and I used to watch a show called "Superhero Games" on the network. It was like pro wrestling, but with high-tech weapons and armor and athletes whose abilities were expanded by drugs illegal in legitimate sports. Many people, even policy makers and intellectuals, naively believed that the superhero craze would usher in an expanded era of civic responsibility. Sure: those kids aren't taking Rae-Tae because their unstable thrill-seekers, their doing it because they would rather do volunteer work but can't figure out where to go to apply.


The three-week standoff between the Subway Angels and the Bed-Stuy Herd was the first nationally publicized incidence of vigilante-on-vigilante crime, but it certainly wasn't the first actual event. Problems were cropping up just a few months after Knoxville, but they were brief flare-ups. Inevitably, the winners in some shootout would successfully brand the losers as "pornographers" or "drug dealers" to the local press, thereby making themselves out to be heroes in what was essentially an out-of-control power struggle. By the time research or a district attorney cleared the losers' names, it was a page-six retraction to a page-one, 60-point headline story, which did little to stem the tide of superhero mania.

The Herd-Angels war was different, as both teams were chartered by the state and were high profile. The Angels had been around, with different names, since the twentieth century, and the Bed Stuy Herd was bankrolled by an aging filmmaker turned community activist. The Angels accused several Herd members of selling drugs. The allegations were probably true, but it was certainly true that the Angels were the most dangerous loose cannons on the street. Subway cars would go silent when an Angel entered; there was a palpable fear that the beret-sporting fascist might open fire if a commuter popped his gum. An Angel took a static-charged billy club to a Herd member in broad daylight in the middle of the street, and for three weeks afterward, Brooklyn was a war zone. It was the second time in seven years that violence engulfed the borough, and the second time the NYPD proved outgunned and outclassed. Both vigilante squads, bankrolled by charitable and corporate interest (and possibly illicit activities), boasted budgets in the millions of dollars, and unlike the cops they didn't worry about overtime or traffic duty. The violence only ended when the leaders of the two groups agreed to a cease fire. They stood together on the steps of city hall and spoke of "putting differences behind them" and "renewing their focus to the task at hand" but everyone had an uneasy feeling that there was too much armament in the hands of unstable people, and that the situation was bound to grow out of control.

The Herd-Angels war alerted Washington to the problem, but lawmakers moved at their usual glacier pace. Most of the body-enhancing drugs used by the vigilantes were already illegal, as were many of the weapons. Congress moved to prohibit this and that type of weapon, usually with second-amendment lobbyist giving them a battle at every turn. Four long years passed, and vigilante wars increased. Twelve were killed in a border dispute in Oakland. Over 25 buildings were destroyed in one night during a power struggle in Detroit. It was impossible to keep track of who was destroying what, and why. Everybody called himself a superhero, from the guy in Boston who popped three unarmed teens for giving him lip in a parking lot to the hoodlums in Chicago who called themselves Robbin' Hoods, who looted stores, ostensibly to give the booty to the poor (themselves). Chartered good-guy operations tended to be populated by as many high-strung sadists and racists as well-meaning citizens, and cloudier grass-roots movements often cloaked the illegal operations of their own members. And everybody was armed with something illegal-yet-cheap, light, relatively easy to use, and deadly.

A line had to be drawn, and the Vigilante Prevention Acts were that line. No legislation in American history is quite like it. They had to repeal the second amendment to push it through, but that was possible when "well-organized militias" were wreaking havoc on city streets around the country. The acts outlawed the weapons, and the actions. A citizen's right to fight crime ended at his property line. Beyond that, only self-defense and the protection of immediate family was legal. If you see a crime and want to be a good Samaritan, call the police. If you intervene yourself, you may get caught in a double whammy: you can be accused of vigilantism, and the perpetrator can claim that you violated his civil rights and avoid prosecution.

The federal government couldn't outlaw all vigilante activity and expect local municipalities to clean up the mess; after all, if local authorities could handle the problem, it wouldn't have become a problem. The VPA commissioned the Treasury Department to charter a special division of the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, diverting funds from the Drug Enforcement Agency and other sources affected by the vigilante crisis. This Anti-Vigilante Unit would enforce the new laws, providing local police with the muscle and resources to combat even the best-equipped vigilantes. It would also coordinate efforts with communities, churches and schools to raise awareness of the dangers of the vigilante lifestyle. Only one man in the country could handle such a delicate balance of duties: former LA police chief Charlie McCoy, who believed that half of a good cops job is keeping the community on your side. McCoy became director of the unit, and it has borne his signature- and his name- ever since.


We've lived with the VPA for eleven years, and things are much better than they were. The fires in Atlantic City appalled everyone; fifteen years ago, they might not have made the news. The weapons and drugs are still out there, but the president of your local lodge isn't encouraging members to buy them and help police the community anymore. I don't feel afraid for myself or my family living in Manhattan; when I left Tribecca to go to college in New Hampshire, I swore that if things didn't change I would never go back and would make my mom get a place in the suburbs.

Of course, we've given up some freedom, too. Local club meetings sometimes get raided, not by the McCoys, but by local cops: any club with lots of young men could be a vigilante team. Sometimes, rights get stepped on along the way. What's more, hundreds of criminals are released on technicalities after clumsy do-gooders step in and stop a crime. It doesn't happen as often as opponents of the law claim it does: if the good Samaritan and the victim share a wink and say the assailant took a swing at the Samaritan, it all becomes self-defense, and most DAs are willing to abide by the charade if there were no weapons involved. But it's disturbing when it occurs. It's all a matter of give-and-take. Most intelligent people would prefer that the authorities exercise a little more common sense when sorting dangerous vigilantes from confused kids. But when you see super-gangs duking it out in the middle of the street, there's nothing more reassuring than seeing the shining armor of McCoy agents swooping down on the scene with the hardware and the jurisdiction to handle any emergency.

Chapter 9:

Linking Causes and Effects

We were back at the apartment by nightfall. Alicea had the police scanner and the network on; local affiliates were beside themselves, trying to cram the firefight and Bell's indiscretions into one night of news. We must have looked pretty ragged; Travis was cut up and covered in soot. She went immediately to the first aid kit they kept in the kitchen.

"Were you involved in all this?" she asked as she tended a cut on Travis' elbow. The anger of earlier that afternoon melted into concern as she dressed his wounds.

"We just showed up to watch the fireworks," he said, wincing as the antiseptic stung the open wound. Alicea smiled slightly.

JD propped himself up on the sofa. "They say the Black Street Herd blew up a rec center in a black neighborhood. Does that sound right to you?"

Travis pulled away before Alicea could pour any more chemicals into sensitive places. "It sounds all wrong to me. It sounds like the McCoy Units are too lazy to do a real investigation."

"Neighbors said they saw a suspicious character in the neighborhood: middle aged white guy in a suit, the kind who usually drives through that part of town at 75 miles per hour."

I looked down at my suit, which was blackened with smoke. "That might have been me," I said.

They all laughed nervously. "Nah. You ain't middle aged. Not yet, anyway."

"Thanks, JD."

Alicea tossed me a damp washcloth. "With all that soot, you don't even look like a white guy."

I blushed, wiping my face with the cool cloth.

The news shifted from the youth center to Bell. I hadn't had any time to process what Gus had told me; the image of that truck getting scorched by a small anti-tank missile occupied the center of my thoughts for most of the past hour. When the story started, I perked up, but the kids switched channels.

"Man, these old drunk senators get more action than me," JD complained as he switched to basketball.

"Turn that back on," I said.

JD was about to tell me to go to hell, then he took a good look at me. Something about the way my trench was covered in soot and my hands shook as I wiped my neck told him not to mess with me. He returned to the news, even flicking the settings to Full Enabled so I could read hypertext on the monitor.

Democrat Joe Bell, 62 years old, married to the same woman for almost 40 years, caught on security cameras after one of his escorts du soir, a 16-year old girl, cried out for help in the middle of the night. The legislator propositioned the girl and two of her friends earlier in the evening; it was all fun and games until things got rough. The girls had been posing as legal-aged patrons, even gambling in the casinos, but that detail wasn't going to help Bell much.

Bell and three little party girls, younger than his daughters. Wasserman must be having a field day. I didn't even bother to check the sponsors on the anti-Bell editorials that had already been rushed onto the web: Wasserman and Family Values Programming and every Republican worth his parking spot behind Capital Hill were all striking at once while Bell was on the mat and covering up. His House seat would probably be vacant by the end of the week, I reasoned.

"I'll bet anything that this was arson,:" Travis said. "The Herd moved in to protect the neighborhood; and the McCoys moved in to get them."

"If the Herd knew something, they must have gotten a tip from someone," JD said.

Could I do something to help Bell? I wondered. More importantly, should I? This wasn't some little tryst, after all, and you can overlook only so much bad behavior in a political leader. I could publish my own opinions about his importance in fighting the vigilante problem, but one voice wouldn't do much good. In fact, I wondered if it would be better if I distance Bell from his moderate political views, in the hopes of keeping his policies afloat even as he sunk.

"Which means that someone knows something," Travis said. "And the usual guy to talk to is . . ."

"Shorty Rock," JD finished. "Kind of makes you feel sorry for trying to kill him, huh?"

Travis shrugged his shoulders. "He shouldn't have touched Julianna," he said. He looked around, "Speaking of Julianna?"

"She's asleep," Alicea said, staring at him accusingly. "She hasn't left her room in two days, or haven't you noticed? Actually, no: she came out last night, grabbed a scotch bottle and a bag of pretzels, then went back in."

"Haven't you checked on her?"

"Every hour or so. She hasn't felt much like talking since the Bashful Banana."

Travis lowered his head. "I guess you blame me for that."

Alicea rolled her eyes. "Does it matter who I blame?"

"You know I'm sorry for the way that went down."

Alicea bit her lip. She put a hand on his shoulder. "I know. But it is nice to hear you say it for once."

He put his arms around her, and they hugged tightly. "I'm glad your okay," she said, running her fingers through his hair. "When you're out and I hear sirens, I expect the worst."

JD grunted. "If you two want to be alone, then go someplace. Me and Randy are about to play video golf."

"No you're not," Travis said. "We're gonna pay Shorty a visit."

It was all too convenient. Bell goes down hard just as the McCoys take on the Black Street Herd on a crowded city street. That firefight was just the kind of thing Bell worked to prevent. It was like an ambush: all of a sudden a new order was sweeping through faster than I could make sense of it all.

"Coming Randy?"

I looked up. I had been ignoring the team. They were going to investigate the fire. They smelled a setup, just like I did.

I set the floater to a default program. "You don't need an old timer slowing you down. Just take the camera."

Travis buttoned his jacket. "You OK, Randy? You take care of yourself pretty well for an old guy."

I tried to be frosty, but my mind was elsewhere. "I was covering scenes like that back when you were eating crayons."

"Yeah, but you don't get used to it, do you?"

I looked up at him. He had the capacity to be gentle, even thoughtful, when he tried. I smiled. "No you don't," I said.

They left with the floater, and I helped myself to a drink of their whisky while trying to remember what Giles Wasserman and Gus had said to me about Joe Bell.


The night crowd hadn't shown up yet when Travis, JD, and Alicea arrived at Down Under. Just the zombies were there: the white-skinned ghost children who never see the light of day. They laid on overstuffed sofas with their bodies intertwined, listless and lazy eyed and strung out on what-have-you, barely acknowledging the team as they strolled in. Shorty Rock, reclining in a corner with a Jack-and-coke and a 16-year-old bleached blonde, wasn't nearly as nonchalant as his patrons. He threw the girl off his lap and sat up rigidly when he saw Travis enter. Travis cracked his knuckles as the hustler approached.

"I hope you come in peace," Shorty said, bowing and affecting the pose of some affluent sheik. His sunglasses hid a deep shiner surrounding his eye.

JD spoke up. "Our white flags are up."

Shorty's eyebrows peaked. "Your white flag is always up, my friend, but Travis often sails beneath the Jolly Roger."

Alicea shook her head. "Don't worry. I have him on my leash." Travis frowned at her, but she ignored him. "We came here because we needed to get out, but we need to be discreet. Laying low, you understand."

"Indeed I do."

Alicea looked at Travis and JD accusatorily. "In fact," she said, "I didn't think it was such a wise idea coming out tonight at all."

Shorty shook his head and feigned concern. "It would be a shame to spend all your time cooped up in your crib during the holidays. Travis, my friend, you should not hide such beauty as this from the world. You have to show the lady a good time."

Shorty took Alicea's hand and brought it toward his mouth, but one look from Travis put him in his place.

"Oh," Shorty said. "So the big man is still sore over that . . . misunderstanding with his sister. Well, I am sore over it ,too. Sore in the ribs, sore around the eye . . ."

They laughed, easing the tension. Shorty brought them through the lounge into the makeshift club's VIP area. There was a small bar there, a few tables, some holographic paintings and black light posters. Shorty invited the others to sit at the bar, pouring each of them a cognac.

"This place is almost nice," Alicea said.

"You never been back here?" JD asked. "This is Shorty's inner sanctum, reserved for close friends and major players."

Travis nodded. "So what are we?"

Shorty grinned. "Old friends, Travis. We merely need to have our fences mended. Shorty Rock cannot abide by a long-term grudge, nor can he afford one." He lifted his glass. "Cheers."

They drank.

Shorty leaned across the bar. "So tell me: why have we been locked away in our crib for so long, other than the wonderful Jersey weather whipping off the ocean."

Travis swished his drink around his mouth. "No other reason."

"Mmmm. Of course not. There is never any reason for anything. Things just happen. Begin linking causes and effects and, if you aren't careful, you may know too much."

Travis stared Shorty down. "Exactly."

"What the hell are you fishing for, Shorty?" JD asked.

"Nothing, brother. Curiosity can be lethal." Shorty finished his drink and poured another. "I suppose it is only coincidence that none of you has been seen since the Bashful Banana burned down."

None of them lost their cool. Alicea stared into space for a moment, and Travis just swirled his drink. Alicea may have been reading someone: flashing a message to Travis, perhaps, or scanning Shorty. I hahapter 8

Different Languages

JD just cackled. "Shorty Rock, you are shot out! Who the hell we look like, the Black Street Herd?"

"Hell, no. But the word is that some white kids were around the scene, and from the rumors that come through here . . ."

Travis stood up. "Do I seem like the kind that hangs around gay bars?"

Shorty took a step back, self-consciously grabbing his ribs. "Now, nobody said that, brother ."

"You shouldn't listen to rumors, Shorty," Travis said, returning to his stool.

Shorty shook his head and wiped his brow with a cocktail napkin. "I know that, better than anyone. I wasn't saying anything about anybody's personal life. I just get the impression some people come through here who are involved in the superhero racket. Hell, we get guys from the Black Street Herd in here all the time, bragging about the chumps that they sauced."

"I understand," Alicea said. "Lots of kids come through, and everybody's involved with something."

"Exactly," Shorty said, pointing his finger. "It's certainly not my policy to accuse folks of anything. Like I said a moment ago: curiosity is lethal, and sometimes it's best to know nothing. It's just that if we did have folks coming through here who were in the superhero racket, I can find much better work for them to do than saucing gay bars."

Travis did his best to pretend to be disinterested. He finished his drink and held out his glass. "I'm sure you do," he said. "Like busting your pot and fake ID empire to the ground, maybe?"

Shorty poured another Hennessey. "No," he said curtly. "Like taking care of some real problems." He leaned closer to the others and began to whisper. "Take, for example, the tragic fire at the youth center earlier in the night."

"That was a shame" Travis said.

"A cruel shame," Shorty replied, shaking his head. "Saucing some fag joint off the strip where the smack and "10" flows all night is one thing, but the motherfucka- please excuse the queen's English- that torches a rec enter where kids go after school is just begging to be taken down."

"Sounds like a job for the McCoy's" Alicea said.

"Or the herd," Travis added.

"If only matters were so easily resolved. I have some acquaintances, some serious 90-calibre goombas, if you follow, and they told me just a few hours ago that some neo-Nazi Armorlitia types were involved. Now, you know the McCoys: they don't wanna hear from nothing about the Armorlitia. They just wanna round up the Black Street Herd and smile for the cameras. And the Herd can't often tell one white American from another when it comes to retaliation, if you follow."

Travis' eyes lit up. "Do you think there's an Armorlitia cell operating in this area?"

"That is the story I hear, despite my best efforts not to hear anything. Word has it that they operate out in the woods on the mainland, but they come into the city for hardware, plus the occasional muscle-flexing like the youth center fire."

"Any leads as to their whereabouts?" Travis asked.

"Well, information like this has been going around the Herd, or what's left of the Herd, for some time. They've been investigating in their own way, but let's just say that their organization and detective skills aren't up to this task. My data collection abilities are more finely honed; therefore, I have come across some information that I would pass along to anyone who- unlike my eager associates in the Herd- could deal with this problem effectively"

"But we might know some people who could help," Travis said.

"Now, you have to realize that these Armorlitia guys mean business. The rumor has them burning this town to the ground and setting up the Herd in the progress."

"I hear you," Travis said

"It's breaking each of my personal rules to go this far. Of course, when I think of that youth center burning down, I can't look the other way."

"Just tell me what you know, Shorty," Travis said.

Shorty glanced nervously back and forth. "A gentleman came to me looking for some hot security codes, the kind that might unlock the safety controls in stolen military battle armor. I told the guy that the goods were beyond my means, but he gave me this in case I reconsidered."

Shorty reached into his pocket and produced a matchbook. Travis examined it. It was from The Shoals, the resort casino on the Atoll, and a room number was handwritten on it, as were the words "Herman Long, here until 12/24"

Travis peered up at Shorty suspiciously. "You didn't tell the police, or the mob?"

Shorty laughed. "I don't have any strong connections with the goombas, Travis. And as for the police, well, you don't do much business in the phony card racket when word gets out that you dimed someone. That's why I hope to put this information in the hands of somebody who'll do the right thing. I could give it to the Black Street Herd, but those trigger-happy fools would burn down half the town."

Travis shrugged his shoulders, passing the matchbook back to Shorty. "We'll keep our eyes and ears out for you," he said. "That's all we can do."

Shorty looked way for a moment, as though he were collecting his thoughts, but he turned and smiled at his guests warmly. "That's all I can ask you to do, my friends."


The wind nearly blew Alicea into the street as they ascended the steps from Down Under. "Suddenly, Shorty Rock is in a sharing mood when it comes to information," she said. "I don't like it."

"He's helped us out before," JD said as they began walking home. "The guy never shuts up."

"No, but he's never this full of it," Travis said. "But, if what he said was true, he might never have been this spooked before."

"We could ask Randy to check out the story," JD said.

"We could do our own research for a change," Alicea answered.

Travis turned to her. "Didn't you think to . . ." he made the spinning gesture near his head.

Alicea rolled her eyes. "Only for a second, Travis. It's all I could handle. I wanted to see if he knew who we are and if he was sure about the bar burning."

"Well, what does he know?"

"Any idiot can see that he knows who we are. As for the bar incident, he was pretty damn sure it was us, and I don't think we changed his mind."

"But you didn't read anything during his story about the Armorlitia?"

"I was burned out. His mind is like the cup-and-saucer ride at the Steel Pier."

"Like I said before," JD said, "we get Randy to check his news sources."

"You know what he'll tell you?" Travis asked. "He'll tell you that Atlantic City averages a dozen racially motivated crimes every month, and most of them are blamed on an Armorlitia that the feds don't even believe exists. I know, Jeremy: I read the papers."

"Well, hell, let's just go to the Shoals and look in on this guy," JD said. "If he looks suspicious, we sauce him."

"If he looks suspicious," Travis corrected, "we wait until we catch him with something, then sauce him. But this calls for a cloak and dagger operation . . ."

He stopped and turned to Alicea. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Are you feeling cooperative?"

She sneered at him, then turned away. "Not particularly, but the thought of neighborhoods getting leveled as part of some sick skinhead prank doesn't exactly appeal to me. What do you have in mind?"


Two days later, they decided to send JD out to corroborate the story: do a flyover of the warehouse, maybe talk to a few street contacts he had. If Shorty's information was legitimate, they would strike. It wasn't a unanimous decision: JD didn't want to fly in sub-zero temperatures, and Julianna just sat like a stone faced puppet, letting the deliberations wash over her. But Travis made the plans and Alicea didn't give him her usual parcel of grief, which for this bunch was a regular quorum.

They cooled their heels in the apartment, all dressed and ready for action, just waiting for a call from JD. Alicea even dressed the occasion: she popped out of the bedroom in black tights, a scarlet spandex top, and a red mask she had fashioned out of some felt. Travis nearly fell off his seat.

"Damn!" he said, putting his arms around her. "All you need now is a nickname."

She pulled off the mask. "I've gone this far," she said. "Don't get greedy."

The phone rang. Travis, verifying that it was JD, slipped out onto the fire escape to talk.

I sized up the suddenly not-so-reluctant superhero suspiciously. "Well, I'm surprised," I said.

She struck a coy little runway-model pose. "What? This old thing? I whipped it up in five minutes. I could use a little more anonymity when we work,"

I shook my head. "Not just the costume," I said. "The whole attitude. Two days ago, you were ready to throw Travis out on his ear. Now, you're acting like his dream girl."

She pulled over a kitchen chair to sit beside me. "It's my Christmas present to him. My last one: I'm leaving tomorrow."

"Really?" I asked, leaning closer to speak confidentially. "Why now?"

She thought for a moment. "Because I can't take it anymore. I mean, is this any way to spend Christmas Eve?"

"I'll bet you've been this fed up a hundred times before. Does this happen often? Do you work yourself up to leave and then back down at the last second?"

She glared at me. "I may have, once or twice. But this is different."


She was about to speak when Julianna entered the kitchen. We were quiet as the girl, in costume and wearing her gauntlet, fumbled with a bottle of cognac. She couldn't open the bottle with that steel glove on; we watched her vain efforts until Alicea gave up and poured the girl a drink.

"That's how," she said after Julianna left. "She's been drinking herself into a coma since the bar fire. She blames herself. Travis doesn't see it; he doesn't realize that she'll do anything for his approval. That's the only reason she keeps fighting."

Alicea looked down at the cognac bottle and decided to pour herself a drink. "No, the only reason I'm going tonight is to watch out for her. One of two things happens tonight: we catch this arsonist, and Travis is satisfied for a while, or everything goes to hell. Either way, this is the curtain call."

She took a long, hard draught of the drink, then stared wistfully out the window. "I don't have the capacity to worry about these people anymore, Randy. Something could happen, and that would be all I could stand. I have to get away."

I stood behind her, resting my arms on her shoulders. "Well, I'm coming along tonight, but we probably won't have a chance to talk. You'll be out before the sun tomorrow?"

She nodded. I could see her tears in the reflected glass.

"It's been great meeting you," I said.

She shook her head, then looked down to hide her tears. "Same," she whispered.

Travis burst through the door; I removed my hands from Alicea's person in short order, but he wasn't coming for me. He slammed the phone down on the table. "The lazy shit did one flyover," he said.

Alicea composed herself quickly. "Did he find anything?"

"He said the story adds up: there was some activity at this warehouse. He just called me from a bar near the Atoll tunnel entrance. He stashed the flight suit; he claims he's watching the tunnel for Long."

"I'll bet he is," Alicea said.

"I'm going to meet him and send him to the warehouse. I'll watch for Long without getting distracted by every skirt in the place. Do you know where you're going?"

She nodded and he turned to leave, then stopped. He looked back at her, noticing the remnants of tears. His expression softened. He took her into his arms, kissing her deeply. He looked at her for a moment, watching he face for emotions as their embrace dissolved. His eyes were questioning, as if he couldn't find what he was looking for. I thought he would say something, but he just turned and left.

"Sometimes I think he can read my mind," she said.

I checked my hidden camera and the remote control for the floater; I had to be ready for fast action. "So this is it?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, slowly tying on her new mask and pulling her hair back into a ponytail. "Once more into the breach."


The team assembled. Three of them did, anyway; Travis trailed Mr. Long and kept in constant contact on the cell. I went with the team. This event was too big to be entrusted to a floating minicam, and I wanted my hand held unit to be there when the action went down. We were back where it all started: the Kaiser Bread warehouse was just a few blocks north of the street where I met the team nearly a month before. The wide streets were nearly deserted; high reeds rustled on the dunes that guarded the entrance to the bay.

Alicea's teeth chattered as she studied the scene. She watched JD execute some minor repairs on his flightpack while Julianna sat cross-legged, her back propped against the wall of a nearby building. The younger girl was fingering her weapon nervously. Alicea knelt beside her.

"I'm worried about you," she said.

Julianna began rocking and rubbing her arms for warmth. "I'm fine," she said. She turned to Alicea. "At least, as fine as you are."

Alicea bit her lip. "I guess that's as good as we can ask for."

JD spoke up. "Check that out."

A black stretch limo rolled into view. For a second, the team was caught in its headlights as it passed, but it didn't slow or acknowledge them. It rolled into the gravel driveway behind the Kaiser warehouse, and three suits got out: the driver looking like muscle, the others in the back like fat cats or major hustlers.

"Hmmm," Alicea said, affecting sarcasm. "That looks suspicious."

"Can you read them?" JD asked?

"Too far away. Can you get some aerial surveillance?"

JD began bolting the harness to his back and armpits. "In a minute, but I'd rather not. Wind shears. The warehouse has a high ceiling, though, so I'll be able to fly when it hits the fan."

I used my zoom lens. The fat cats looked like everyday sleazeballs, cigar-chomping daddies with greased back hair and spit-shined shoes. The driver, who unlocked the warehouse and held the door for the others, was a buttoned-down professional: a tall black man with a shiny pate and eyes that looked everywhere at once. He glanced in the direction of the team for a moment, but we were tucked away in the shadows.

Static erupted from Alicea's portable. She mustered some nervous humor. "Mario's pizza."

Travis' voice was so loud at first that it carried through the streets. Alicea hurriedly adjusted the volume. "Long is in a cab and will be at Kaiser in maybe three minutes. I'll be there in four."

"Don't get too tired. We have at least one paid jammer here, and a couple of players who look like they mean business."

"I mean business, too," Travis replied, and the portable fell silent.

They waited through several long minutes, each of them clearly agitated. Alicea's breath was long and labored; Julianna stifled a series of raspy coughs. JD tightened and re-tightened the bolts that connected the flight harness to his body, stretching his arms to test the snugness of the fit. Finally, a taxi appeared at a distant corner, releasing a short, pudgy figure with a briefcase. The figure walked toward the warehouse.

"That's Long," Alicea said. "He'll probably get a look at us. Keep the hardware out of sight, and he'll think we're just street punks."

JD slumped against the wall, concealing his backpack behind him. Julianna didn't have to do anything to resemble a street punk. Alicea, who looked too mature to fit in, turned her back. Long glanced over, but kept moving. He rounded the warehouse, knocked on the door where the others had entered, and disappeared inside.

"It's show time," JD said, pointing to a nearby rooftop. Travis' head and shoulders were visible. He must have followed the taxi on foot, running rooftop-to-rooftop behind it, dropping to the street only when it was necessary. He gave the others a "cut throat" sign for radio silence, than a thumbs up.

"Be careful and don't kill anybody, people," Alicea said. "Let's catch the firebugs then go home for Christmas mac-and-cheese." JD pulled the cord and his flight engine roared to life. He took a running start away from the warehouse, releasing his wings and sprinting until the superconductive field became strong enough to provide a few precious feet of lift. He rose steadily, disappearing around the block.

Travis dropped from the rooftop and trotted in a crescent-shaped path along the street, gathering speed as he approached the loading bay door. Julianna aimed the sights of her force pack. Now high above, JD reappeared, circling silently above the street. I slipped closer, ready to charge in a few seconds behind the team.

"Now!" Travis shouted. An ionized pulse ripped from Julianna's weapon. The corrugated loading bay door buckled instantly. Travis, having built a good head of steam, rushed for the entrance, and JD dove for it.

"Here goes," Alicea said as she and Julianna followed their teammates, with me and my cameras hot on her heels.

The warehouse was dimly lit and crammed with empty crates and old machinery. The fat cats and Long were at the opposite end of a long breezeway, visible through the window of the old foreman's office in which they were negotiating. They turned to acknowledge the teens racing toward them; the bodyguard stepped into the entrance of the office, brandishing a low-yield CFC pistol.

"D-Bird, clear! Velvet, fire!" Travis yelled as he rolled behind a pile of crates. JD ascended beyond the range of Julianna's gauntlet just as the weapon unleashed a pulse straight down the breezeway. The bodyguard was knocked right off his feet; the window shuddered but did not break.

"We got 'em!" Travis exclaimed. He regained his feet as JD rose and perched atop some high shelving. Alicea, a few steps behind the others, stopped in her tracks suddenly, staring into the foreman's office in terror.

"Oh, shit," she cried. "Oh Travis, oh shit!"

The fat cats helped their enforcer to his feet.

"What is it?" Travis asked.

Her eyes shifted wildly from left to right. "We aren't alone in here . . ."

The fat cats and Long calmly stepped out of the office. Travis turned to them in confusion, then back to Alicea.

"Alicea?" he whispered.

"Trap!" she shouted. "Run!"

Long pulled a badge from his breast pocket. "ATF: McCoy units," he shouted. "Freeze!"

"A setup!" Travis shouted in anger. He grabbed his sister's hand, pulling her away back toward the entrance they had blasted. Alicea followed, and JD dropped from his perch in the same direction. From behind the crates came a dozen McCoy troopers, these guys in full battle armor. One sealed off the exit, stepping into view with his CFC rifle poised at Travis' chest.

Travis leapt for cover, nearly pulling his sister's arm from its socket as he dragged her to safety. JD arched away to freedom at the last second, but his wing clipped the trooper at the door. If not for battle armor, the fed might have been decapitated, but he was just bowled over. That drew JD some fire, though. The high ceilings were bathed in light as blasts followed JD through the warehouse.

Alicea and I picked our way between boxes until we could see the others. She called to Travis. "There are 14 of them," she said, "They're armed to the teeth."

"Let's get out of here," Travis said.

Long and the others drew weapons and approached the team slowly, calling down the breezeway as they walked. "You are under arrest for violations of the VPA," Long announced, his words punctuated by blasts as his lieutenants pursued JD. "Surrender immediately. We are authorized to use any and all necessary force."

"We have no chance against the armor guys, but those four . . ." Travis thought aloud. "Julie, give me one ass kicker to take out Long. Then we go straight out the way they came in."

Julianna fiddled with the controls. Tears were pouring from her eyes. She wiped them away, hurrying to make adjustments as the feds approached.

"Oh, God," Alicea whispered as she watched Julianna work.

Julianna crouched on the floor, steadied her legs against her brother's body, and kicked hard, sliding out into the causeway. She squeezed the trigger on her box, but only a few crates over her targets' left shoulders were disturbed. In her haste, she had miscalibrated the force pulse.

"No!" Travis screamed. He and Alicea both leapt into the causeway as the trooper JD knocked down a moment before drew a bead on the helpless girl. He fired, and the super-heated blast burst against Julianna's leg just as Alicea pounced upon her. Julianna yelped with pain. Long and the others brought their pistols down to fire, but Travis intervened. He raked two of their faces with the buckler in his left hand, side-kicking away Long's weapon. The enforcer descended upon him, and they were engaged in a five-man melee.

Alicea tossed Julianna to cover, then stood to face the trooper a few yards away, his weapon trained on her. She lifted her arms weakly in surrender, only to be lifted off her feet. JD took her in his arms, climbing quickly toward the high ventilation windows.

Travis was thrown to the ground. Long shook some pain from his hand, then produced a communicator. "Two getaways. I want two men in airborne pursuit. The rest mop up. Let's not lose the bird in the hand."

All the while, I was tucked away in a hiding place, safely away from the action. But I had to figure that the armored troopers had heat-seeking technology, so it was only a matter of time before I was discovered. Sure enough, I felt a cold barrel at my back as I crouched forward, trying to get a decent shot of Travis' last stand. I tried to rise when I felt the gun, and it was pushed deeply between my shoulder blades. I dropped my camera, and slowly raised my hands.

Chapter 10:

Acceptable Losses

I had to give JD credit: I didn't expect the kid to think of anybody else in a crisis. He could have had a good head start on the feds if he just flew out the warehouse window, but instead he spent a few precious seconds swooping down to pick up Alicea. He must have known that, as a college graduate, she would have been tried as an adult, like him (he was 23) but unlike the others. Or maybe he just had a thing for her. Either way, he was a sight to behold as he ducked and dodged blaster bursts, thrusters at full throttle, wings bent backwards as he and Alicea ascended to the bank of windows just beneath the warehouse ceiling.

I wouldn't have given them 50 to 1 odds of escaping. Long had ordered two officers to chase them, and the two silver-armored figures flooded the room with blinding reflections as they flew through the beams of the strobe lights. The McCoy soldiers were faster and could maneuver better than JD, even without Alicea in tow. They would be authorized to use stun weapons on JD, even though he could be seriously injured or killed by a fall, as he was unlawfully fleeing a crime scene. My best estimates gave JD about 30 seconds before he was in custody, and there was nothing I could do. Or should do, for that matter, if I intended to maintain journalistic impartiality, except try to capture the whole scene on video. But even that wasn't an option: my little floater would never catch up to JD or his pursuers in time. What's more, if the chase ended with JD and Alicea splattered across the boardwalk, I didn't want a recording of the event. To hell with the story; these were human beings.

There was only one possible means of escape. The McCoy officers track flyers using heat-seeking technology. They also have motion-sensing equipment at their disposal, but its not as reliable when pursuing someone producing a couple thousand kilowatts of output. JD and his flight pack were easily the hottest moving objects in the city flying lower than a jet airplane, but there are plenty of hotter stationary objects: namely, casino lights. If JD could make it to the casino district, the heat generated by signs and displays would force the feds to switch to motion sensors, or at least to modify the bandwidths on their heat seekers.

Reaching the boardwalk, however, would only achieve a temporary solution. The McCoy units would only be confused until they switched tracking technologies, which would only take a few seconds. JD needed to get lost within a crowd of flying, heat-producing, man-sized or greater objects. The only place that could happen was at an Atoll Casino. The offshore casinos rented safe, recreational flightpacks to tourists for $100 a half hour; like many aspects of life on the atoll, this was only legal because they were located in international water. No recreational pack generates the heat produced by JD's pack, but with the McCoy heat-seekers adjusted to compensate for the boardwalk casino lights, JD would blend in, assuming a few crazies were out flying on Christmas Eve.

Let's review: to escape, JD and Alicea had to: a) reach the casino district, preferably in a non-straight path, b) use the casino lights as camouflage to temporary lose the McCoy officers, c) fly three miles over the cold Atlantic before the McCoy soldiers could make their adjustments, and d) blend in with the recreational flyers at an offshore tourist facility. No sweat.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the scenario above is precisely what happened. Alicea recounted the events to me later. JD made up for a lack of speed by flying low over rooftops the feds were unfamiliar with. He banked wide along the 75,000 lightbulb display of the old Ziggurat casino, where they must have enjoyed a few seconds of invisibility from the McCoy sensors. They crossed the ocean about two feet above the waves, risking an icy wipeout in the hope of flying below tracking range and confusing motion sensors. This was an escape maneuver that the team had worked out long ago. Surprisingly, not only did JD remember it under pressure, but he executed it perfectly with a passenger in tow.

Their problems didn't end when they reached the Atoll. It was Christmas Eve, and even on a relatively warm December evening there weren't many thrill-seekers on the flying range. Had they just waited there, JD and Alicea would have been rounded up as soon as the officers picked them out from about a half dozen tourists. But JD was ready for that. After circling with the renters for a few seconds, he ascended high into the airspace, fired thrusters toward shore for a few seconds, then cut power. How he managed to stay airborne carrying an extra ninety pounds is anyone's guess. But the managed to stay afloat, and they glided to the beach while their pursuers flew out to the atoll in search of them.

When they reached the beach, JD and Alicea parted company. He tore off his flight harness and buried it in a sand dune, then set off to get lost in the crowd at some heavy metal nightclub. Alicea ran to the boardwalk, bought a sweatshirt and slipped it on. She spent the whole night wandering from casino to casino, playing quarter slots to calm her nerves and trying to blend in with the crowd. It was a lousy way to spend Christmas Eve.

But it was nothing compared to what Travis and Julianna went through.


After JD and Alicea escaped, Travis realized that there was no reason to continue fighting. He threw down his shield and came out of hiding from behind a stack of crates. He called for Julianna to come out, but at first she didn't respond. Then we saw her drag herself by her arms from behind one of those track-mounted forklifts. She had taken a direct blast to her right hip. Her costume was burnt past her waist on the right side and her skin was blackened, but she wasn't so much crying as gasping for breath as she pathetically inched forward.

"Medical unit: stat," announced a lieutenant as he removed his battle helmet. The kid looked no older than JD; he was clean cut and fresh faced and obviously shaken by the sight of the wounded teen. He buried his face in his hands as an officer in medical attire emerged from the loading dock and began tending to Julianna.

Long and two officers stood astride Travis. They shackled him, hands and legs, with reinforced cuffs as they read him his rights. I felt a tap on the shoulder.

"Take your feet sir," the fed with his piece at my neck said.

I slowly stood. "I'm press, officer. I'm going to reach into my breast pocket and show my credential."

"Hands behind your back, sir," the officer replied.

I did as I was told. In a moment, Travis and I were standing, handcuffed, side by side. Julianna was being lifted onto a stretcher. Travis turned to look at me, and I have never seen such a guilty, defeated young man. I thought the truth had finally dawned on him: that he had endangered his sister, his friends, and himself, for a cause he couldn't define or even adequately justify. His sunken eyes seemed to suggest that he realized how far he had fallen from his own ideals, and what a bitter end he had had brought forth for himself and his sister.

"I'm sorry I got you in to this, Randy," he said.

Then I realized: in Travis' warped mind, Julianna and the others were soldiers. They knew the risks. I was the innocent civilian who he was supposed to protect. It was my arrest that shook him.

"Travis," I said, "I won't last two hours at police headquarters. I'll be eating dinner with my mom out in Tribeca tomorrow. You and your sister will be God knows where. Do you realize that? Do you realize this is it?"

He faced forward and hardened his jaw. "Acceptable losses. We'll bounce back."

I shook my head. "What about Alicea? I hope to God I see her and JD walk up that loading ramp in cuffs in a few minutes. Otherwise, they got zapped in mid air, and judging from the inexperience of these feds, I wouldn't count on a clean catch."

That hit him hard, but he tried not to show it. "What if they escaped?" He asked, his voice catching.

At that moment, I barely considered that a possibility, but I didn't say that to Travis. It wasn't my job to break through the kid's defenses and get him to realize the trouble he was in. As a technical juvenile, he would be assigned a counselor immediately upon arraignment. The professionals had a better chance of reaching Travis than I did.

The van the McCoy unit came in was sent to the hospital with Julianna. Two Atlantic City squad cars came to pick us up. This was my first hint that no one intended to bring the team up on federal charges; for serious cases, Travis would have been taken directly to an ATF facility in Philadelphia or Trenton. If the McCoy units were coordinating with local authorities, then the city district attorney probably planned to pick up easy convictions on state and local charges, rather than risking bad publicity by bringing technical juveniles to federal court.

I won't bore you with my interrogation. That young lieutenant wound up apologizing to me. So did Long and just about every other arresting officer. They returned my hardware with the usual lecture about my responsibility as a member of the media to report crimes to the authorities, not just to the public. The McCoy Unit goes to great lengths to stay friendly with the media, however, and after the slightest reprimand I was given some pizza and allowed to witness Travis' interrogation.

There wasn't much to see. Travis demanded a lawyer at the beginning of the proceedings, and a sleepy-eyed public defender sat beside Travis as he admitted to a variety of wrongdoings. The police wanted Alicea and JD, but Travis refused to budge. He claimed, cleverly I thought, that the others at the scene were a separate pair of vigilantes who had been sucked in by the same sting. The cops brought up the Bashful Banana incident, but their information about that night was sketchy, and when Travis admitted to being at that scene, they gave up on Alicea and JD.

Travis was arraigned at dawn on the 26th on several state charges: vigilante-related mayhem (a state equivalent of the federal laws), prescription forgery, reckless endangerment, etc. He pleaded guilty. This would be a high-speed process: the district attorney, I was certain, would accept a plea bargain that put Travis in a rehab facility for a few years. The case wasn't going to court.

Julianna, meanwhile, was being treated at the hospital out in Pleasantville. At her arraignment on the 29th, the judge declared her a minor under Travis' guardianship. That put her fate in the hand of social workers, who would decide that the best thing for her would be to finish high school.

But I've jumped ahead of myself.

It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. Julianna was in the hospital, receiving treatment for third-degree burns. Travis was alone in a holding cell, his interrogation over. I had spent the whole holiday season following kids through ghetto neighborhoods and into cramped, smelly apartments, dark alleys, and seedy bars. My Christmas Eve was spent in a warehouse, a squad car, and a police station. The most joyous holiday of the year was upon me, and I had a responsibility to hunt down Alicea and JD. At the time, my best guess placed them in the morgue, waiting for someone to positively ID them.

I wasn't spending Christmas morning in the morgue. Nor did I plan to edit footage or to relive that firefight in the warehouse. December had passed for me without a carol or a tree, and Christmas arrived with the tragedy of four young lives shattered and wasted. From Amanda Douglass, the girl who fell from the power line in November, to Alicea, who I believed was just as dead, everything I had experienced in the past few weeks had been desperation and pain. It had been too much. All I could think of as I left the precinct building was how hollow my soul felt, how distant I seemed to be from anything comforting or meaningful.

So I went to midnight mass. Surprisingly, the pillars of that old mission church didn't crumble when I entered. I sang hymns and shook hands with strangers and soaked up the ambience: point settia and incense and a nativity beneath a lit Christmas tree beneath a crucifix. I knelt in my pew and prayed: for Travis, for Julianna, for the five hundred thousand or more kids under 21 who risk their lives in the misguided belief that its somehow cool to be a "superhero."

Most of all, I prayed that Alicea was OK.


Everybody disappeared for a few days; the Hood siblings into the judicial system, the others into the woodwork. It was a good time to go into hiding. McCoy was bringing down the Black Street Herd, street kids with pop blasters, and anyone who looked like they might have ever taken a muscle drug. The sting was on in Atlantic City, and there was no sign of kid gloves. Public opinion shifted after the rec center fire, and when public opinion shifts, the McCoy's respond. The nightly news was dominated by superpowered chases: feds using shoulder-mounted launchers to take out Herd assault vehicles on public streets, silver-plated knights of justice kicking in door frames and pointing CFC rifles at small-time Rae-Tae dealers, and other assorted mayhem. The public begged for more. I begged for the chance to get three blocks in the city without something blowing up beside me.

I couldn't find Alicea or JD anywhere. I tried Shorty Rock, but his information was less than forthright. Then, Shorty was gone. He didn't even make the nightly news, unless you requested full enabled and extended crime coverage. There he was, the troopers beside him looking like platinum behemoths, as they led him out of Down Under in cuffs. Almost a half-million dollars worth of stolen access numbers were confiscated, according to the report. Drug sales and teen prostitution suspected, it said: otherwise, the McCoys would be out of their jurisdiction. Coverage provided by: you guessed it, the ATF public relations department.

Nobody came by the apartment: not Alicea, not JD, not the authorities. With all the other action, the McCoy units seemed satisfied to give up on the remainder of the team, but no one told the team. When the garment factory reopened, I asked discreetly about Alicea's whereabouts. She was taking some time off for the holidays, they said. No one knew where she was staying.

With Shorty's enterprises closed down, I only had one lead left: the cognac bar where I first encountered Alicea. The Atoll was about the only part of the city that wasn't engulfed in violence, and a person could easily blend into the crowd there. I passed through some extra-tight security, rode the moving walkway, and staked out a surveillance position with a view of the bar.

Sure enough, she appeared, looking exhausted and scared but trying to hide it as her eyes darted around the bar. "Let me get a St. Vincent's" she said.

I approached her, making sure she could see me from a distance: there was no sense in scaring her. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" I joked.

"Oh, Randy," she cried, putting her arms around me when I drew close. "I never thought I'd be happy to see you."

I asked her where she had been. She spent Christmas day wandering the floors of casinos; it was her and a few of the most compulsive of gamblers, absently dropping money into machines and fighting off emotional collapse. When she could no longer stand, she returned to the apartment to sleep, but the network kept ringing. So she packed for life on the streets: she crashed in libraries and church soup kitchens by day, then wandered the casinos by night. She used her powers to earn a little extra cash (although telepathy isn't the advantage you would think it is in a casino: the dealer doesn't know what the next card is, so reading his mind doesn't help). She had enough money for a hotel but was afraid to even sign Jane Doe to a register.

"They're not looking for you anymore." I said.

"I know that," she said. "I saw a McCoy command van operating behind one of the old boardwalk casinos. I read everybody that I could. A trooper looked right at me without getting suspicious."

"You can go home," I said.

She gulped her drink. "I know that and you know that."

I nodded. She wasn't ready. "What about JD?"

"No sign of him. When he left, he said something about New York. He doesn't have any of my credit cards, so I don't care."

"You don't care?"

She winced. "No, I don't. OK, I do. But I think we would both agree that I would be better off if he just disappeared. Then, I could put this all behind me and move on."

"It's probably for the best," I said.

"Yeah. I've even thinking about Valley Green. It might be my version of the French Foreign Legion."

I nodded. "I suppose my work with you is done. I've found you. Your alive, you've escaped, and you're going to be okay."

She finished her drink and flashed a crooked smile. "Yep, that's me. Alive and okay. No worries. What about you?"

"I have a story to finish. I have to do features on Travis and Julianna after they're placed. And I have to try to find JD and do a wrap on him."

She ordered drinks for both of us. "Let me go with you to find him," she said.

I accepted the refreshments. "You don't have to do that."

"I know. But you'll never find him without me, and I guess I owe it to him to look after him."

She finished her second drink in one long draught, watching the waves crash behind the atrium window beyond the bar. "It's my fate, Randy. I don't know how to live if I'm not babysitting people like Travis and Jeremy. I won't be able to live with myself if I don't know what became of him, and I don't want to have to watch your show to find out."

"Well," I said, smiling at her, "if you insist."

She smiled back. "I do. Just give me a day or two."


.Julianna's was the last sequence I recorded for the documentary, in the middle of January. But we edited her story into sequence earlier for dramatic effect, so that's how I'm telling the story here.-R.S.

Matt and Chrissy Devlin of South Orange New Jersey have seen it all since they became foster parents for troubled teens. They've seen the ravages of drugs and the sad aftermath of child abuse, kids crippled by wounds both physical and emotional. The patterns are always there- of victimhood, abuse, and lost innocence- but each individual they take in is unique.

Julianna Hood was no exception.

"Many girls come to us very withdrawn," Chrissy Devlin said as she sat beneath the photo gallery on her family room wall. The photos and digital images depicted the members of the Devlin extended family, the dozen or so teenagers- mostly girls- who were sent to live with the Devlins in the past eight years while the federal government made more permanent arrangements.

"Most times, it seems like they're shrinking away from their pasts," Chrissy continued. "Most of these children are not proud of what they did in the past. Also, some lack the self-esteem to speak up for themselves when they aren't part of some gang."

Matt, an insurance adjuster in his mid-40's, laid a supportive hand on his wife's knee. "That isn't always the case. Some kids bring their problems with them: the aggression, the hostility, the tendency to find themselves in with the wrong element. We had a girl three years ago who started selling Phinny Bar two weeks after we took her in. We had to turn her right back over to DYFS."

"But most aren't like that," Chrissy, a school crisis counselor, explained. "Most are like Julianna. They're scared of their surroundings. Many of them have never experienced a normal home life. Over time, they open up, and you realize how much these young people are hurting."

Julianna inherited a room that housed many young vigilantes before her. The room was spacious and decorated in a cozy but impersonal manner. She was permitted to decorate, but the room displayed few personal touches except for a fading image of her brother and his ex-girlfriend taped to the wall beside her bed.

She looked healthier than she did a month earlier, when her brother led her into a trap inside a warehouse. She was eating regularly, and her cheeks were starting to fill out. Her hair was cut short, and she was wearing her makeup sensibly: the superhero who could blast opponents with force fields had become the girl next door.

"I miss everybody," she said as she sat cross-legged on a bad far too large for her. "I miss being able to do my own thing. But I'm glad I don't have to fight anymore."

The rules of the Devlin household, and of the federal program which sent Julianna there, were simple. Give up the vigilante lifestyle. Earn a high school diploma. Rejoin mainstream society. This wasn't a halfway house or lock-down environment, though. Julianna was free to live the life of a normal teenager. She could date and go to parties, assuming she kept a regular curfew. In fact, the Devlins encouraged their foster children to socialize with the "right element."

"I've met some people," Julianna said, blushing and looking very much like a normal teenager as she discusses her social life. "The kids at school are nice. I'm going to a party tonight with some people I met."

Chrissy Devlin first encountered teenage vigilantism in her role as a public school crisis counselor.

"The school I worked at was plagued by gang activity," she explained. "Students came to me, and I began to hear about the types of drugs they used to make themselves stronger. When I researched these drugs, I realized how dangerous they were, yet the school district tried to sweep the problem under a rug."

Chrissy's district focused their anti-drug energies on intoxicants, choosing to ignore body-enhancers as a threat to the student population. Many communities made the same mistake two decades ago, when Rae-Tae and Phinny Bar were considered inner-city street drugs.

"I couldn't stand by and not take action," Chrissy said, explaining her decision to campaign for muscle enhancement awareness programs in her community. It was at the same time that the Devlins volunteered to become foster parents.

Chrissy's experience made the couple ideal candidates for the foster parent program, but Matt admitted that "at first, it was a learning experience for both of us. Chrissy knew what these children were like in a school environment, but bringing them home was another story." Their first child was prone to violent fits and destroyed much of the family's furniture and electronic equipment. The Devlins learned to adapt, and to provide for each child's individual needs.

"By the time they reach you," Chrissy explained, "so many people have failed for these kids. So many have let them down. All you can do is be there for them, and keep loving them no matter what happens."

Even when surrounded by her new friends from school, Julianna spoke little and rarely smiled. Her friends picked her up in a sporty new convertible. They were a guy and a girl, but not a couple, and everything about them appeared to be typical of the All American high school senior. They were outgoing, healthy, cute and fashionable, and they appeared to accept their new friend totally. The trio gossiped and giggled about school and the upcoming party as they whizzed down the interstate, apparently oblivious of the camera that hovered beside them as they drove.

"They're nice to me," Julianna said after they arrived at the party. "They help me with my homework. I guess they're my best friends right now."

"I know Julie has had some problems in the past," explained Dylan, a tall kid with his wavy brown hair bunched into a ponytail. "But what she got caught doing, I'm sure there's 50 kids in the school who've done the same thing. That doesn't make it right, but you shouldn't look down on her, either,"

Danielle, the owner of the convertible and a fresh-faced youngster who seemed to smile constantly, agreed with her friend. "You can't judge people. It's hard enough to have to move in with new people and go to a new school without people talking behind your back. Julie seems like a nice person; I don't care what she did in Atlantic City, or whatever."

The party took place at a grand suburban home in a cul-de-sac. Cars filled the driveway and the circle; a beat and bass line shook the neighborhood. Inside, the crowd was thick, and the smell of stale beer, cigarettes and chronic were prevalent. Kids danced and talked, flaked out on couches and necked in corners. Julianna and her friends were handed cups of beer the moment the entered, and Julianna soon was surrounded by a herd of potential suitors.

"You know how guys are when there's a new girl in school," Danielle explained.

Julianna appeared to enjoy the attention, opening up and smiling as she flirted with the guys. Alcohol, of course, was a violation of her probation. The law said that she wasn't even supposed to be in the presence of alcohol consumption, but that didn't stop Julianna from drinking.

"This ain't Pollyanna," Dylan explained. "There aren't any parties without drinking. Anyway, she can hold her liquor better than most of those guys."

Danielle slipped into the crowd surrounding Julianna and attempted to pry her away, but she shook off the effort. Julianna walked arm-in-arm with one boy, presumably in the direction of the keg, as Danielle shrugged her shoulders.

"I guess the important thing," Danielle said, "is to keep her away from the superhero stuff. Those guys aren't interested in that."


After eight years, Chrissy Devlin can create a fairly specific profile of the female superhero.

"Nearly all of them are heavily influenced by outside factors. Rarely does a girl wake up and decide that she wants to fight crime. Sometimes, there's a gang of girls involved, but most female vigilantes are under pressure from their boyfriends, fathers, or, in Julianna's case, a brother who acts as a surrogate father.

"The emotional abuse these father figures bring to bear is sometimes crippling. Many are delusional individuals, fighting some kind of personal jihad against contemporary society. They raise these girls to be backwards, hateful, and distrustful. Most of the kids don't have a chance."

Many superheroes are trained to be neighborhood soldiers of fortune, thugs who can commit petty crimes or shake down perceived malefactors for their fathers or boyfriends. In some cases, the girls were abused when younger, then turned to vigilantism to have the power to fight back against their abusers. Backwoods fathers outfit their daughters to defend their homes against attackers, usually repo men or sheriff's officers. Devlin is familiar with several cases in which well-meaning parents offered their daughters chemical enhancements for self-defense, only to watch the girls become violent and unstable.

"Rarely do we see a girl who came from a nurturing environment," Chrissy said. "There's always something: alcoholism, sexual assault, something. Vigilantism is a symptom of more serious problems. Once you realize that, you can take the first step toward healing these children."

The Devlin philosophy necessitates that the couple take some chances, including allowing children like Julianna to attend parties. Matt admits that "it would be easier to lock her in her room every night. That would solve some problems, but it wouldn't help Julianna any. It's important that she takes some control over her life, and that means that we have to allow her to make her own mistakes sometimes."

Julianna's midnight curfew came and went, and the house party took a darker turn. Drunkenness overtook most of the kids; some were passed out, the rest were slurring and stumbling, their interactions incoherent. Girls fell into guys arms; calm discussions erupted into shouts and shoving matches. Many of the clean-cut kids who were there when Julianna arrived had left, and a shadier crowd had arrived.

In the master bedroom, three young men shared a bed with Julianna. She was drunk and dazed, sprawled out on the bed as the boys moved around her. One had his pants around his ankles, another was unzipping his jeans. The third, his bare chest a mass of demonic etchings, ran his fingers along her thighs. Julianna's blouse was draped around her neck and her bra was pulled aside. She shifted onto her hands and knees beside the first guy, her bare stomach a sharp relief of ribs, her eyes lifeless as she rubbed her head against his hips.

Dylan burst into the room angrily. "What are you doing with my girl?"

The tattoo guy stood, cracking his knuckles. "What makes her your girl?"

"She came with me. She's mine."

Dylan, rail thin and innocent in appearance, gamely stared down his tattooed adversary as the others looked on in confusion. "Well, I ain't lookin for trouble right now, and she ain't worth fighting over."

Dylan turned to the others still kneeling on the bed. "Get rid of your friends too."

Etching Kid grunted. "Hell, I don't even know these guys."

It took a few moments, but Dylan bluffed all three into leaving. He stared down at Julianna, who had rolled into the fetal position, her clothes still half off.

"Let's get you dressed."

Julianna rolled onto her back. Dylan straightened her bra and pulled her blouse back over her arms. "Did you see that one guy?" she said, her speech very loose. "He looked like JD with all the art."

"Whatever," Dylan said, pulling her upright. "Danielle talked to Mr. Devlin. She bought us some time, although I don't think he was convinced by the story. You'll be okay if you can sober up."

Her head swiveled as if she couldn't support it. "I'm fine. I didn't drink that much."


As Julianna headed for the school bus stop on Monday morning, Chrissy Devlin mused about the fate of children like her.

"There are so many excuses for giving up on a girl like Julianna. Take the incident on Saturday night. She was two hours late. We could have reported that, and she would be one step closer to a juvenile facility. But what would that solve? Would she be any closer to rehabilitation? I doubt it.

"I'm certain that nothing happened on Saturday night that Matt and I should worry about. She's a good kid, and she's made good friends who won't let her get into any trouble. A normal teenage social life is a new experience for Julianna, and she probably got caught up in the excitement of being around people her own age who aren't obsessed with violence. Under the circumstances, I might forget my curfew, too.

"Julianna's come a long way in just a few weeks. She's had a rough time, growing up with nobody responsible to take care of her. Now that we have her, I'm sure she's going to be okay."


- I caught up with Travis not long after he was sent to rehab. This part of the story was edited in to sequence here- R.S.

They sentenced Travis to four years at a live-in state rehabilitation center in Morristown. The facility was beautiful: about 150 acres of gardens and trees and old-time architecture on what used to be the campus of a private school. Facilities like Morristown were high-security, lock-down environments, but they were always designed not to look that way. Only a select few offenders, who meet specific criteria, make it into these facilities: most individuals found guilty under the Vigilante Prevention Acts are remanded to traditional federal prisons. Travis was sent to Morristown because he was a technical juvenile, could plead reasonable adversity from losing both parents fairly young, and passed a battery of psychological exams which demonstrated that rehabilitation was an actual possibility.

Getting an interview with him was tricky. Part of the standard operating procedure at any rehab is to severely limit contact with the outside world. That means restricted viewing of carefully monitored programs, no telecommunications of any sort, and a strict protocol for visitors. Even parents and spouses are limited to monthly one-hour visits at Morristown. From non-relatives, patients are permitted only three visitors per year, and these individuals are carefully screened. Anyone with any criminal record is prohibited, and Morristown reserves the right to drug-test anyone wishing access to a patient who appears to be a regular user of any controlled substances. Anyone who refuses a test is not allowed in. All of these strictures are designed to keep patients away from potential advocates of their previous lifestyle. If your visit has the potential to contradict the worldview with which patients at Morristown are indoctrinated, then you simply don't get in.

As a non-relative, I qualified for one of Travis' three annual visitor passes, but my status as a high-profile journalist made the director squirm. I couldn't lie about my objectives: she knew I wasn't going to be interviewing Travis about the food. The director, Dr. Sherryl Beech, at first refused my request on principal. Even the rumor that Randy Stone was interested in one of the patients, her reasoning went, would be enough to rekindle the urges, the delusions, the compulsions to act out from which most of her patients suffered.

I didn't give up. First, I pointed out that Travis had no family, except for a sister who would not be visiting. Since JD would never pass a drug test, I knew that Alicea and I would be the only people who would even qualify for a visit, and Alicea had no intentions of dropping in. Dr. Beech conceded that it wasn't healthy for a patient to get absolutely no visitors. Secondly, I brought up the public relations angle, telling her that a piece in my show would increase awareness of the positive work being done at facilities like Morristown. I didn't buy that one myself, but I was fishing for Dr. Beech's approval using a chance to be on television as bait.

She swallowed.

"We have 700 patients here at the Morristown Rehabilitation Complex, all of whom were recommended to us by the courts after committing federal felonies outlined in the Vigilante Prevention Acts or state felonies as described in the New Jersey anti-vigilante code."

My minicam hovered as I walked beside her down the manicured lanes in the complex courtyard. Oh, I had to make other concessions: my questions to Travis were screened, my contact with him would be limited and monitored, etc. But basically, I was in for the price of a few hours of grandstanding by the good doctor.

"Further, all of our patients were substance abusers. VPA offenders who use illicit weaponry or surgically mutilate themselves in the act of vigilantism are remanded to other complexes, assuming that the courts suggest rehabilitation."

Hardware hacks in this part of the country are sent to a federally-administrated facility out on Long Island. That's where Julianna would have wound up if she was 18. Implant freaks like JD don't have their own hospital systems; they usually wind up in traditional mental hospitals, and most of them need it.

"The rehabilitation process at Morristown is divided into two separate, but equally important, functions. The first is to rid the patient of all controlled substances, to offer them an opportunity to overcome their addictions, and to repair the damage done to their bodies by years of drug abuse and dependence. Our second function is to re-orient them with mainstream society. Our aggressive program of counseling, education, and reinforcement is a proven technique in eliminating from subjects their inclination toward anti-social or dangerous behavior."

She led me to the gymnasium, where Travis and other patients were taking part in morning exercise. Exercise, she explained at length, was a privilege, and about half of their community was confined to their rooms that morning for one minor transgression or another.

We watched them from behind a mirror on a platform above the gym floor. There was no special equipment around: no weights, no basketball nets, not even lines to mark off a volleyball court. The kids, Travis among them, were following a counselor through brisk aerobic exercises. The atmosphere was silent, almost solemn: three hundred kids doing jumping jacks with only their footfalls, their breathing, and the counselor's counting to be heard.

"There are no weights at this facility," Dr. Beech told me. "Most of these young men have already spent enough of their lives in the weight room. They come to us with biceps like suspension cables, but many of them can only run for about a minute before getting winded. That's a direct result of Ray-Tae, the most common addictive muscle-builder we encounter. The heart and lungs are actually weakened by the drug, rendering the user a muscle-bound user a Colossus with clay feet. Or, to be more exact, a clay cardio-vascular system."

I noticed that many of the most physically-imposing young men were indeed wheezing their way through the calisthenics.

"Mr. Hood is lucky by these standards. As an Anapest user, he avoided many of the most harmful side effects of more powerful drugs. What's more, if there was such a thing as a responsible user of these chemicals, Mr. Hood would be one. The physiological component of his rehabilitation has proceeded smoothly.

The counselor on the floor called the aerobics to an end, and most of the patients slumped gratefully. Travis, however, began to run in place. From my vantage point, I could see that stubborn look on his face. He wasn't finished with his morning workout.

The counselor approached him slowly. "Mr. Hood, this exercise period has ended!"

Travis' legs began pumping harder. Dr. Beech bit her lip.

"Mr. Hood, you are ordered to stop running!"

Travis' whole body was shuddering as he galloped in place.

"Mr. Hood, you will lose exercise privileges for one month if you do not desist immediately!"

He finally came to a halt, but he stared at his counselor defiantly. They sized each other up; the instructor was a tough looking guy, and I speculated that he probably tussled with a kid once in a while, just to let them know who they were messing with. I thought it was coming to that, but Travis backed down after a few tense seconds.

"Fall out people," the counselor ordered.

Dr. Beech turned away from the glass. "That sort of confrontation happens far more often than we would like," she said.


I followed Travis all day, always observing him from a double mirror or some other blind spot. They were training him to be a medical technician, and he had the aptitude for it. He led a team of residents through a mock emergency, handling the situation with the confidence of a young man who knew his way out of a burning building. It was nice to see the kid's ambitions channeled into something useful, and I could imagine Travis leading a paramedic team someday in the future. He had the potential to be a real hero.

Reluctantly, Dr. Beech allowed me to conduct a short interview under controlled conditions. She previewed all of my questions and insisted that the interview be carried out in the facility's visitation room, through reinforced glass and with constant remote supervision. "Randy," he said as they led him into the room. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me. "Trying to finish your story?"

I explained that tracking down he and Julianna were my final assignments. He started to ask about the others, but I shook him off. "I would love to have a conversation, Travis, but I'm sure you realize that Dr. Beech is watching us. She will end this discussion if I stray from the questions she approved."

He nodded and leaned back, appearing comfortable with the circumstances. "Yeah, Randy. That's the story of my life lately. I'm always under supervision. First, it was you who had a camera up my ass every day for a month. Now, they even have cameras on me in the john. Even you didn't do that."

"So, how do you feel about your treatment here at Morristown?"

He looked around. "It's alright, Randy, and I mean that. I'm not afraid of having a jack-boot at my throat tonight if I criticize the place, if you get my drift."

"I do."

"A great, structured environment. Plenty of educational opportunities. Tremendous food, believe it or not. If I were a criminal, I would consider myself lucky to be in a place like this."

I scratched my head. "You still don't consider yourself a criminal?"

He squeezed his temples. "Randy, I spent two hours a day with counselors: please don't start on me. I am well aware of the fact that I broke the law, but I will never, never consider myself a criminal. Is that such a fine point that only I understand the difference?"

"I suppose not."

"Randy, we have guys in here who do nothing but jam. They jam with street herds, they jam with neighbors, and if the guards turn their backs, they jam with each other. You have about a million hours of tape of me. Was I really like that? Do I really belong here?"

I had no way of responding, and he seemed to understand. He smiled and leaned back, apparently happy to speak his mind.

"Who do you blame for the events that lead you here?" I asked.

He chuckled. "Well, Shorty Rock for one. Of course, he was only setting us up because I kicked his ass, but I only did that because he was trying to make my sister. Of course, he was only making my sister because I had to deal with scum like him in the first place, so . . ."

"So you blame yourself," I concluded.

He grinned widely. "What kind of hero would I be if I didn't take responsibility for my own mistakes? Yes, I blame myself, for putting myself in a position to get set up and for not smelling the setup when it happened."

That threw me off; I didn't expect Travis to take responsibility, although the kid did spend a month surprising me. I paused the floated to flip threw my note cards for a moment.

"Randy," Travis whispered to me.

I looked up.

"I hear things in here," he whispered. His hands were over his mouth; the monitors probably couldn't pick up his voice.

"There's a guy in here who was recruited by an agency," he said. "They were training him in urban terrorism: hijacking, hostages . . ." he emphasized the last words, "arson."

I whispered as low as I could. "Valley Green?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Armorlitia. Or something like it. He left when the action got too hot, and McCoy picked him up at a convenience store two days later. Funny, huh?"

I spoke in my normal voice; all that whispering was sure to attract Dr. Beech. I was disobeying her directives just by entertaining that kind of talk. "Travis, you're falling for an old jailhouse dodge. He knows you were going after an arsonist when you got caught, so he pretends to know something."

Travis protested. "It's not like that. Hear me out."

"I don't know what you use for money in this place, but this guy probably wants some. He'll feed you what you want to hear until you cough up cigarettes, or N-10, or whatever."

The doors behind me swung open. Dr Beech entered, looking quite irate. Two guards entered the room behind Travis and took places beside him.

"This interview is terminated Mr. Stone," Beech said curtly.

"Randy, tell Alicea that I love her."

I looked him in the eye. "I can't do that."

The guards took firm grip of each of Travis' arms as he rose to approach the glass. They struggled to hold him back. "Why? Because of these people? To hell with them!"

"It's not that," I said. Dr. Beech stepped between me and the glass, but I could easily see Travis behind her. I told him why I wouldn't pass a message on to Alicea. He stopped wrestling, his shoulders sagged, and the two guards walked him out of the visitation room without incident. Beech nearly shoved me out the door.

"You compromised everything by discussing the outside world in such detail," she said as she escorted me out. "It was the most unprofessional display of journalism I've ever seen. That patient is likely to regress, to possibly become violent . . ."

"Prisoners have a right to know about the outside," I said.

"These are not prisoners, Mr. Stone. They're patients."

She had a point, but I had a story.

Dr. Beech left me outside the main gate. I studied the place's placid exterior. It was a civilized place to hold criminals, I thought. But what about those who merely broke the law? Not a philosophically deep distinction, perhaps, but Travis had a point when he said that no one seemed to recognize it.

I was about to pull away when I heard a ruckus coming from a grove well beyond the fence. A few guards were deployed, communicating on their portables and fanning out to stop some unseen threat. Then they scrambled. One disappeared behind a strand of trees, then another. Suddenly, the threat came into view, running at full tilt toward the fence and waving his arms at me.

"Randy!" Travis shouted, shrugging off the guard attempting to tackle him. "Dennis Zane! The guy I told you about knew Dennis Zane!"

Travis was quickly subdued by about half of the Morristown staff, and I pulled out of the lot, trying not to think about Dennis Zane. Hell, that name made the papers after the Bashful Banana burnt down; any good scam artist would be able to feed Travis a line about him. Granted, news was scarce in the facility, but I had little time to follow shadow conspiracies. Beech was sure to call Gus, so I had an afternoon on the network explaining myself ahead of me, plus I still had to meet with Julianna's foster family and get the whole story wrapped up in three days.

Travis took a big risk, but there was no time to think about Dennis Zane. My story was almost over.


It took us the better part of two days to find JD. I used up a few markers among my underworld contacts, visiting every shooting gallery and head shop that would have me, waving JD's picture in front of pushers and dealers and junkies. Alicea pushed herself to the limit as well, scanning the minds of the people we questioned, searching for any evidence that they might know something. We spent a solemn, sleepless night in my apartment; I stayed up until dawn combing through news reports, hunting down potential hideouts, while Alicea whimpered softly beneath a damp towel, waiting for the blinding pain to subside. My job seemed futile: JD could be in any vacant building, alley, or subway station in the city. The only real lead I had was that he had visited Mahmoud's pawn/chop shop, and I was hoping he didn't stray too far from there.

Mahmoud was the first person we visited when we reached Manhattan. He was more than happy to fill me in. JD visited the shop two days after Christmas. He was looking to trade in his wings. The Kurd offered him a cool grand for the harness, but after he factored in about $200 in old debt, he gave JD $800. The harness was sold the next day for $1500; JD hadn't been seen since.

How far can a kid go in the city with $800? As far as he wants. But Alicea and I both assumed that he didn't make a down payment on a flophouse and go in search of regular work.

So we spent our second day in the city canvassing the bars and liquor stores around Gold Street Electronics, and late in the afternoon we caught a break. The liquor store clerk didn't want to talk to us, but the flicker of recognition crossed his mind when I showed him JD's picture, and Alicea picked up his though loud and clear.

"He tried to rob me last night," the clerk explained after some coercion. "He was stoned, so bad he could barely stand up. All he had was a knife; he waived in my face and told me to empty the register."

I asked how he responded.

"I pulled my piece."

The clerk didn't shoot JD; our boy stumbled into the night when he realized he was outgunned. But he couldn't have gotten far. There was hope. A local beat patrolman filled me in on a few prime locations to find drugs and those who use them, and we narrowed our search to the half-mile around the liquor store.

We found him as night fell. He was huddled face-down on top of a heating vent behind a restaurant, wearing only his jeans and a tee shirt. He was unconscious, and freezing. I knelt to examine him. His face was cut and bloodied, his body filthy. There were signs of infection around the piercings on his arms and back. His body went limp as I lifted him. As I tried to open his eyes, he muttered something, tossed his hand weakly, then slipped back into unconsciousness.

"My God," Alicea said.

I slung the broken young man's arm over my shoulder and began to drag him out of the alley. "Let's get him into the van," I said. "I'm not sure he'll survive the night outside.


A closer examination of JD's body told us more about the previous four days. There were needle marks inside each of his elbows, which explains most about the fate of the $800 JD received in exchange for his wings. There were caps from a couple of fifths of Hennessey in his pants pockets, which explains the rest. The wounds on his face looked relatively fresh, the result of passing out hard on a concrete pillow, possibly in the very spot where we had found him. The kid spent two years telling himself he was a superhero, but when it all fell apart, he traded his wings for a four-day heroin binge that could easily have cost him his life.

Alicea and I cleaned the wound on his face and the area around his harness snaps with some old towels while we weighed our options.

"You want to take him back to Atlantic City, don't you?" she asked. At times, it was hard to tell if she was reading my mind or just speculating. Either way, she was right.

"I don't think his situation is critical," I replied, feeling his forehead. It was burning. "It hasn't been cold enough to induce hypothermia, and he's not in shock or anything. Right now, I want what's best for both him and you."

"I'm fine," she said unconvincingly. There was just enough light in the back of my van with which to work, yet she was blinking as though someone was shining a strobe light in her eyes. Her voice was little more than a plaintive whisper. She had been reading strange minds for the better part of two days; my guess was that the adrenaline was the only thing keeping her standing, and that was starting to wane. If I tried to take her to a New York City emergency room on New Year's Eve, with all the howling and mayhem that goes on in them, I would have two patients on my hand instead of one.

"I think you need to get back home," I said, resting a hand on her shoulder. She put her arms around me, and we held each other for a few seconds. I could feel her trembling, growing weaker by the second as she clung to me.

"Oh, no," she whispered, as she spun away from me, her equilibrium obviously off. I placed a towel beneath her face before she became violently ill, her whole body shuddering from the nausea that accompanied her dizzying headaches.

I moistened a clean towel and placed it over her head, patting her gently and telling her everything was OK as she convulsed. JD lay a few feet away, seemingly inanimate, his arms outstretched like a figure in free fall.

I couldn't help but laugh. I whispered to myself: "Happy New Year."

It took forever to get out of the metro area, but traffic thinned out as we moved south on the Parkway. My passengers slept in the back as I drove. A light rain began to fall as we passed the exit for Jersey City, and I was reminded of Amanda Douglass. Somehow, the three clean cuts that ended her life no longer seemed enough to express the anguish of these young lives.

Alicea stumbled forward into the passenger seat. I had waited for her fit of illness to subside and cleaned her up before we left the island. I figured she would need two days of bed rest, at least, to recover fully, but she had demonstrated over the last two days that she was nothing if not tough.

"I'm feeling better," she said, and I realized that "better" is a relative term. Her voice was barely audible. She leaned her head against the door, as if sitting up straight might be too much of an effort.

"How's JD?" I asked.


A sign passed announcing an approaching fuel stop, and I convinced Alicea that she should try to choke down some soda to prevent dehydration. I was hungry, myself, and I thought it might be a good idea to try to get some fluids into JD.

Alicea was asleep again when I returned from the fast food joint. I woke her, and together we tried to wake up JD, who couldn't be roused beyond an incoherent stupor.

"I've seen guys knocked out cold for three days," I said after we gave up trying to wake him. "The drugs just fry their systems. Sometimes they don't sleep for two days when they're high, but the crashes just shut everything down."

Alicea was gamely trying to hold down ginger ale. "He seems very peaceful."

"He is. And he's going to be okay, thanks to you. I would never have found him without you. You did the right thing."

She nodded. "It's funny. I despised him. I resented having to share a roof with him. I hated Travis for forcing him upon me. I was afraid to leave Julianna at home with him, and sometimes I was afraid to be alone with him. I thought he had the conscience and morality of a pack animal that just growls and fights and fucks and marks its territory."

I chuckled. "JD seemed like a tough kid to love."

She laughed at my understatement. "But in that warehouse, he saved me. He could have escaped cleanly, but he put himself in harm's way to save me from going to jail.

"We were struggling to get lift," she continued, "and just after we cleared the window, the cold air hit us and we lost about twenty feet of altitude. JD could barely keep us aloft, and we could hear the feds powering up behind us. I kept thinking that he was going to drop me. I kept telling myself: as soon as he realizes that he won't be able to escape with me, he'll drop me and make a break for the atoll."

I interrupted: "But he never did."

"No. I'm ashamed of myself for thinking that. Nobody is that irredeemable. Nobody."

She leaned close to me; I put my arm around her shoulder. "I've laid awake nights wondering what would happen to me if I had been captured," she said. "I can see my father storming in to my cell with a battalion of lawyers, getting them to declare me incompetent to stand trial because of my 'gift'. I can hear him blaming everything on Travis, blaming everything on society . . . blaming everything on anyone but himself. And me. Then, after a few weeks of back room wrangling, I would walk free: a free woman, but a vegetable labeled too sick to live her own life. Given the circumstances, maybe I would make sure my father never found out. I would rot in jail, silently suffering in the name of 'the cause.' At least Travis would be proud of me, if I couldn't be proud of myself."

I looked down to her. She stared vacantly at her prone comrade. "You have something to be proud of," I said, gesturing at JD. "You saved a life. I've covered this vigilante scene for years, and I've seen vicious acts of vengeance, atrocities carried out with the best intentions, and just about every horror you could imagine done in the name of justice. In all those years, Alicea, I have never seen a superhero save a single life. You're the first."

She looked up at me, and she was smiling. What I told her was the truth, not that I thought she cared much: she had never identified with herself as a superhero, the way Travis did. But I felt that she needed to realize that while she had spent years living in fulfillment of another person's dreams, her time hadn't been wasted. She had become something: a woman of fortitude, and courage, and sacrifice. I needed her to realize that I admired her for her strength, but for a few moments we could do nothing but beam at each other.

"I'm thirsty," JD croaked, lifting his hand toward us with great effort.

"They gave him vinegar and water to drink," I said, remembering an old bible passage. We propped JD against my video bank and began ministering to him.


We admitted JD to the hospital on the mainland. He was diagnosed with pneumonia in the emergency room, and they took a blood test to determine how much of what he had taken over the last few days. The doctor on duty wanted Alicea to stay as well; he would only let her leave after she agreed to a week of bed rest.

"You know, this could get hard for you," I said as we entered Atlantic City.


"What happens when JD is released?"

She bit her lip. "I'll let him move in, provided he gets a job and sobers up."

"That's fine," I said, "but what about the conversation we had about starting over? You might not want a monkey on your back as you try to get away from this lifestyle."

She shook her head. "It's too late to back out now. I was committed the moment we found him in the alley. Anyway, he won't be a monkey on my back. I'm starting over, and so will he. His flight suit is gone. He has nothing. He'll have to play by my rules."

I nodded. She sounded confident.

"He can't scare me anymore," she continued. "I know he can't hurt me. Know why?"

I didn't.

"If he ever tries anything with me, if I catch him stealing money, or shooting up, I'll nail him. I'll reach into his mind, and I'll find the memory of him reaching out in agony, begging us for a drink. I'll make that memory so real for him that he'll think he's right back in this van, lying in his own sweat. I'll fill up his mind with it, until the only thing he perceives is the image of himself helplessly crying out to me. And I'll keep that memory in the front of his consciousness until he collapses under the weight of his own frailty."

Her conviction was frightening, but at least I was no longer worried that she wouldn't be able to defend herself if JD came sniffing around for a credit card to borrow. Anyway, I guessed that while the treatment she described sounded harsh, it was probably fair: a psychic kick in the cubes for a joker who walked over her one too many times.

"Drive past the apartment," she said. "Go to the boardwalk."

"The doctor said rest."

"It's New Year's Eve. It's nearly midnight."

"Are you sure you feel up to it?"


We parked in one of the old casino lots, then headed for the boardwalk. There was a throng of people there, drinking and carousing and staring across the water at the gleaming lights from the atoll. The noise didn't seem to bother Alicea; she took my hand and led me past the crowds and out to the beach.

"I didn't want to lose you in the mob," she said as she led me down a dune. The rain had let up an hour ago; the beach was moist and pock-marked by raindrops. The sea was choppy, with foamy waves thundering ashore just a few feet from us.

I looked at my watch. "They should have started," I said.

She gathered my hands in hers. "They will in a moment," she replied.

With that, the crowd on the boardwalk began counting from twenty. Their voices seemed distant, overwhelmed by the pummeling waves.

"New Year's resolutions?" I asked her.

"My whole life is a resolution. And you?"

"A few. It's bad luck to tell."

She giggled. "You're thinking of birthday wishes, Randy."

The countdown ended. The crowd cheered, and a hundred lasers shot into the sky from the atoll. The beams danced along the clouds as fireworks burst over the ocean, alighting the sea with reflected colors.

"Happy New Year, Randy. I think I love you."

She put her lips to mine, and for the first time in weeks, everything seemed to make sense.


That's the little secret I shared with Travis at the Morristown facility, the one that took the fight out of him. There was no sense holding out hope for redemption with Alicea; she wasn't his girl anymore, not even in the most remote sense. I'm not sure why I picked that moment to drop a bomb on the kid. Maybe I felt like he needed to get on with his rehabilitation, that a healthy dose of anger against her and me would help him make a clean break. That's my charitable interpretation, the one I use when I want to give myself credit. Deep down, I may have wanted to show him up, to humiliate him for the sake of my feeling towards her.

But that wasn't it either. I had fallen in love with Alicea over the course of the story, but my love for the truth was still stronger than my love for any person. It sickened me to think of Travis maintaining some façade of chivalry, to keep up the pretense of courtly love that fed his illusions that he was anything other than a gang leader in a Halloween costume. There were too many lies in illusions in the whole superhero life. That was the one I had the power to destroy, and I went for it.

Alicea and I loved each other through a few rocky weeks. She couldn't sleep through the night until the middle of January. At first it was the fevers from the cold and exertion of our trip to New York, but later it was the nightmares. Does a telepath have more vivid dreams than the rest of us, and therefore more horrific nightmares? How do you compare? Once or twice a night, she woke up with a start. I rolled over to find her clutching at the sheets and shaking. I'd prop myself up on pillows and hold her against my chest, letting her feel my heart beat until she drifted back to sleep.

That's me, mighty Randy, being strong for the frightened little girl. Except I was terrified myself, the scenes of the past few weeks haunting me, every siren in the distance waking me up like a bolt. Holding her close was the only way I could sleep. Some veteran of the street scene I was, clinging to a girl seventeen years my junior for support.

Gradually, the fear did begin to fade. After a few nights in hotels, we were satisfied that her apartment wasn't under surveillance, and she returned there. I commuted back and forth to Manhattan, editing by day and returning to her by night. We never turned on the lights in the apartment, though: we were cautious not to alert anyone to our presence by a light in the window or a blip on the power grid. After 6:00 every night, we lived in the shadows of candlelight.

Alicea lit three candles on the shelves around her bed. The flames flickered in the draughts from the warped windowpanes and she curled her body around mine, her hand playing against my chest. "I'm spending too much of my life in darkness right now, Randy," she said.

"I know," I said. The candlelight drained the haunting blue from her eyes as she looked up at me. Her eyes were reflected fire. "It isn't right. It's like the old scripture verse. You should never hide your light beneath a shade."

A gust of wind outside sent shadows rippling across her face. "What does that really mean?"

I tangled her hair with my fingers. "Well, in the bible it refers to the light of faith, the belief in God which is a person's most noble trait. It should never be denied or hidden from the world. I tend to think of it as meaning more than that. We shouldn't deny our nature. We shouldn't hide our gifts or our talents. We shouldn't forsake what we really love."

She squirmed at my side, resting her head against my chest. "And when you live your life in fear, hiding in a pitch black apartment all night, listening for strange footsteps in the corridor, you're really doing all those things."

I sighed, holding her tightly. The nightmare never seemed to end for her. She was out of the vigilante life, but she wouldn't be free until she could start over.

"How long will you be with me?" she asked. "How long till the story is done?"

"A few days," I said. At that point, I hadn't tracked down Julianna at the foster home yet. That was the last piece of the puzzle, that and some editing.

She grasped at my shoulders, pulling herself up along my body until we were eye to eye. "I guess then its back to New York with you, huh? Back to whatever life you have there."

Whatever life, I thought. I watched the candles flicker in her eyes. "I could come back," I said. "Or you could come with me."

She stared at me, like she was telling me to be serious, then she laughed out loud. It was the heartiest laugh I had heard in a month. "Do you really think that's a good idea?" she said.

I didn't. Taking her out of Atlantic City and bringing her up to the apple with me would make her totally dependant on me. After two years under Travis' thumb, she would be beholden to me. How could she get healthy under those conditions? People would look at her as my sugar baby or something, and she would spend her days taking care of the mixed-up wreck I am when I don't lose myself in my work. And there was no way I could move down the shore and keep my career on the right track. It was all wishful thinking.

"Then why did you say it?" she asked.

"I don't know. What makes me think I can keep secrets from you?"

She ran a finger along my cheek, slowing to rub the outline of my lips. "It's gotten easy to slip into your mind, Randy. You don't have to tell me how you feel. And you don't have to worry about me. I know we can't stay together. I know I have to live my own life." She brought her face close to mind, her leg sliding down to rest her whole body atop me. "For now, though, please can we just milk whatever happiness we can out of the moment? We can worry about the future some other time."

We kissed, and I let myself get lost in the moment, forgetting that our time together was short.


We spent a few more short nights together in the dark apartment, then said goodbye. I held back tears as I pulled away, watching her wave until I turned the corner out of that dirty alleyway. As soon as she was out of sight, I lost it, and had to pull over at a toll plaza until I could see again. I indulged all the fantasies for a few minutes, imagining myself turning back and gathering her in my arms and taking her with me, common sense and her best interests be damned. Then I reminded myself that she had a plan, that she would soon be free and independent and all the better for it, and that I had to be the mature one. Why did it seem like she was really the older person? Maybe it was two years as a surrogate parent to emotionally stunted friends that made her seem that way.

I returned to Manhattan, tired and a little broken hearted and eager to put the story to bed. My brief romance with Alicea wouldn't be appearing in any documentary, but there were hundreds of hours of footage to sort through in just a few days. And Alicea was in every third frame; it least it seemed that way. I gave up when we came to the footage of Alicea and I searching for JD; I left my intern to do it. Every image of her face put me back on the beach with her, and I just couldn't stand it.

I finished writing the text version of the story as I finished the video. Parts of the original text from the documentary have been dropped into the story already: you can spot them when I disappear into the third person. On a bitter cold Sunday night in the city, with a deadline breathing down my back, I composed a loose conclusion for the story:


When Congress returns from recess, they will consider a bill banning states from passing laws that soften the harsh provisions of the Vigilante Prevention acts. Such laws, for years the useful tools of prosecutors and cops unsure about their ability to earn a federal conviction, or unwilling to resort to the federal courts for minor cases, have come under fire as contributors to the vigilante culture. In states like New Jersey, the war hawks of Congress complain, vigilantes don't fear the consequences. Soft rehabilitation facilities and mental hospitals aren't sufficient deterrents to scare criminals out of the life. It's become fashionable to take a hard line stance against the street superheroes. Teach them a lesson. Through away the key. Then the cities will be safe again, and our children will learn not to play with drugs and weapons.

But there was no deterrent in the world that would keep Travis Hood from pursing the superhero life. The harder the law pushed, the harder he would push back. He was a young man scorned by two lovers: Alicea and America. He would do anything for either of them except give up his fight, and his fight sent him farther away from them as he kept going. What would a tougher law do to stop a misguided kid like that, a would-be paladin in search of a worthy quest on the streets of a crumbling resort town? Nothing. It would make him fight harder, bring him closer to delusion and self destruction.

And what did the law matter to Jeremy David Orczykowski, a.k.a. JD, a.k.a. Dangerbird? There have been JD's since the beginning of time, banditos and highwaymen ill-suited for the life of an honest man. Laws can't change a person's nature. JD was destined to be some kind of criminal; it was only Travis' influence that kept him from a life of conventional gangland violence. Tougher laws mean nothing when you don't value anything, because when you value nothing, you fear nothing.

Julianna Hood now has the chance for a normal life. It's an uphill battle for her. She doesn't know how normal kids interact. She has the education of a 14-year old and the experiences of a 40-year old in a 17-year old package, and every day for her will bring an invitation to temptation and trouble. But would she be better off in juvenile stir, surrounded by hundreds of other girls with horrors in their past? The War Hawks tell me that a 17-year old wouldn't be prosecuted as an adult. Julianna turns 18 in March. If the events in this story unfolded around Easter instead of Christmas, would it make a difference?

Finally, we have Alicea, a girl with a college education, a girl with an intact family somewhere. She lived with the daily fear of the law, yet she kept fighting. She witnessed violence she couldn't bring herself to comprehend, yet she kept fighting. Would tougher laws have changed her? What's the difference between fear and outright horror? In the final analysis, neither was as strong a motivator for her as her sense of obligation, her need to hold onto what little she had in the support of her comrades. Unlike the others, she had no choice about her powers. She was different from the start. Society might gain something by tightening laws and locking Alicea Mann away, even if that something is just the smug satisfaction of our own self-righteous abuse of power. Balance that against the humanity we lose each time we deny care and mercy to the hurting, the troubled, and the misunderstood, and ask yourself if you want to follow the War Hawks as they pass ever more prohibitive laws.

Atlantic City is quiet again. The fires have subsided. Dozens of street superheroes were brought to justice. Yet two remain free. Their paths no longer cross. They no longer take part in bloody sieges of the street by night. Instead, they scuttle like cockroaches beneath the notice of the police and the feds as they take tentative steps toward building a life for themselves. We can't be sure where Alicea and JD will be six months from now; JD might be right back in the life. But for now, this reporter refuses to begrudge them their freedom in the name of strengthening laws which are already too vindictive.

The sight of a street punk, a denizen of society's wide margin where superheroes and criminals scratch out lives for themselves, inspires many emotions: fear and anger, perhaps, or scorn, or perhaps pity. After my time in Atlantic City, the sight of one of these kids will always produce a few ounces of respect and envy. Perhaps it's because of Alicea's quiet strength and suffering nobility, or Travis' uncompromising sense or righteousness, but there's a part of me that will always wish I could capture the freedom these people must fear when they go about their business, society be damned. They commit crimes, the endanger others, but in a way, they characterize some of our greatest virtues as human beings. We may someday be accountable for the quality of mercy we showed these people; I hope that I will find my name on the good side of the ledger.

Part II

Chapter 1: Pressure

I edited that footage together and had the whole thing gift-wrapped for sweeps on the 21st of January. I was looking forward to a long vacation, far from street wars and superheroes and smelly apartments. When Gus called me in for a meeting, I was expecting the usual haggle: the lawyers giving us grief about some fine point, a creative "suggestion" or two motivated by Gus' years of experience in the field.

I wasn't expecting Ed Wasserman to be there.

It was standard practice for a sponsor to send a representative to development meetings for a situation comedy or action show, but a documentary? Wasserman didn't appear concerned about a potential conflict of interest. He sat at the head of the board table in his silk suit, his fingers pursed against his lips. And Gus was sweating. I didn't doubt for a second who would be calling the shots.

"Mr. Stone," Wasserman said coolly, offering his hand without standing up. I shook it. He dispatched with the formalities. "I've seen the final edit for your show."

I took a seat beside Gus. "Your thoughts?" I asked.

He nodded slowly, swiveling in his seat. "There were portions of the program I found extremely satisfactory," he said. "The depiction of the squalor in which these children lived was striking. Your psychological profiles of them were well crafted and handled very responsibly."

I tried to read everyone's faces: Wasserman was giving me nothing but cool professionalism, while Gus had his finger on the panic button. What was the problem here? "I hope you aren't concerned about the amount of violence . . ." I said.

Wasserman stretched back in his chair. "Not at all. As I mentioned in our last meeting, FamVal has no quarrel with programming that depicts violence with consequences." He stood to face the window, staring out at the crowded streets below. "You found yourself in an awkward situation. The . . . conflagration which erupted in Atlantic City presented a most challenging canvas for your little tale, and I think you did an excellent job weaving in the story of these Goths with the larger events surrounding them."

If this was a dressing down, it was taking the long way to get there. "Thank you," I said.

Gus leaned forward. "We all thought you did a great job," he said. "But, as of now, we can't use it."


Wasserman whirled around to face me, his expression suddenly stern. "Mr. Stone, when the story ends, two of these youths have not been brought to justice."

I turned to Gus, looking for some support. He didn't come through. "That's what happened. Two got caught, two went free."

"Went free." Wasserman made this elaborate gesture, holding up his hands as though he were looking for something in them. He extended his palms. "Where are they?"

Again I turned to Gus and came up empty. "I'm not sure," I said. "Even if I knew, it wouldn't be appropriate to tell you. You don't take information in confidence then use it against somebody."

"I see," Wasserman said, turning to Gus. "And this is one of those journalistic principles?"

Gus wasn't comfortable trying to play the middleman. He scratched at his bald spot as he turned to me. "The network is concerned about showing the program in light of the weeks of violence after the fire at the gay nightclub."

Wasserman interrupted. "Some of the most tragic violence in the last few years was touched off by that incident, Mr. Stone. We were lucky to have a camera at the scene. But FamVal cannot sponsor a documentary which clearly identifies two of the culprits of this event, then shows them getting away scot free."

"We would like to be able to end the story by having . . ." Gus looked down at his notes, ". . . Alicea Mann and Jeremy Orczykowski brought to justice. No real work for you, just a tag at the end. Problem is, they've disappeared into the woodwork, and the ATF wants to lower its visibility in that town for a while."

Wasserman sat beside me. "Now, I can read between the lines, so to speak, of what I saw. You established a friendly relationship with both these young people, especially this Alicea. We think you probably know how to contact her."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You want me to set them up."

Wasserman's faced tensed, then he sighed wearily. "I must be coming across as some sort of diabolical creature, Randy." He smiled. "The real antagonist here is pressure. Gus puts pressure on you, I put pressure on Gus. But I get pressure from 50 million Americans who support FamVal. I get pressure form my advertisers, my friends in Congress. The decisions are made well over my head; I have the thankless task of delivering the message and becoming the most onerous person in the room, while loftier persons escape the ugly consequences of their actions.

"Yes, I want you to set up these vigilantes. Deliver them to the authorities. Give the state prosecutors two more cases to wrap up in this Atlantic City nightmare. Then, complete a documentary we can be proud of, one that sends a real, unequivocal message about the dangers of the vigilante lifestyle to the American public."

All eyes were on me now. In his better days, Gus would have thrown this stuffed suit out on his ear, but Wasserman had the clout to boil all of us. Still, using my position as a reporter to set up two kids who voluntarily gave me their story? They must have known I would never go for that, even if they didn't know about me and Alicea.

"If I say no, am I fired?"

Gus turned to Wasserman, almost as if it were his decision to make.

"No, no. Not by my reckoning, anyway."

"The story's scrapped if you don't go along," Gus said. "It was a month of work down the drain."

More, I thought. Sweat, sleepless nights, exposure to danger, all of it culminating in a tough, honest look at a real problem. But Wasserman didn't want that, he wanted propaganda. It made me think how far a guy like that would go to manipulate the truth or engineer facts. Then I thought of our last conversation. He promised me on the Atoll that my team would get its action. Sure enough, Dennis Zane appears in a gay bar, followed closely by the Black Street Herd. Maybe it was a paranoid fantasy, but . . .

"Wasserman, you set up the fight at the Bashful Banana for my benefit, didn't you?"

"Randy," Gus interjected.

Wasserman laughed out loud. "Now, there's the diabolical creature I mentioned a moment ago. You believe I started a street war, Randy. In the name of what: ratings?"

"You seem comfortable rigging the dice now to get the story you want," I said. "Maybe you wanted to make sure the whole documentary fit your politics."

"You are so far out of line," Gus said, waving his finger at me.

Wasserman put his fingers over his lips, that confident little mannerism of his, staring at me with disapproval and a little sympathy. "I'm embarrassed to even respond to something like that. Randy, you've spent a month delving into the psyches of paranoid children. It must have gotten to you. You've taken a distasteful little exigency of politics and fashioned an elaborate conspiracy around it."

He turned to Gus. "If Ms. Mann falls into the hands of the authorities of her own accord, or Mr. Stone has a change of heart, we'll run the story. FamVal will still sponsor the program if it's held until May sweeps."

"That's kind of you," Gus said, the editor tuned sniveling supplicant.

"Otherwise, this documentary is nothing but a regrettable, if beautiful, failure. I would hate to be one of the few people in America ever to see it." He put a hand on my shoulder, like he was my brother. "Randy, get some rest. Spend some time back among adults. And if you reconsider, the door is wide open."

I just stared at him.

"I need to know," Gus said, still shell-shocked after Wasserman left, "what the hell that was."

"A hunch," I said.

His face turned red. "You accused the head of a national sponsorship consortium of blowing up a bar in an Atlantic City slum. What kind of half-assed theory do you base that on?"

All of a sudden, Gus was tough again. "I don't know," I said. "It was awfully coincidental."

"Right. So Wasserman controls the Black Street Herd."

"I didn't say that."

"That what did you think? Besides the coincidence, with all the unlikelihood of Wasserman being anything but a spectator, what did you think? Are you that important, that a billion dollar organization would blow up a city for your benefit?"

Gus stood, slamming the arms of his chair against the table. "Hell, the man knew what he was asking was difficult. I was around and around with him before you got here, Randy. I told him it was unethical." He was across the room, glaring at me. "But I also told him it was not unheard of, under the circumstances. These aren't graffiti artists; they're violent offenders. Still, it's like he said: pressures from above, pressures on us. You responded like an idiot, Randy. I'm humiliated."

Maybe Wasserman was right: a month with Travis had made me paranoid. Seeing him spook Gus, hearing him ask me to sell out my sources . . . A reporter's worst nightmare is being called upon to reveal his informants, or in this case, his subjects. It's always an abuse of power by the person doing the asking. My natural distrust of smooth talkers in silk suits got the better of me at just the wrong time.

"I'm giving you a leave of absence," Gus said. "Straighten yourself out."

This was how it would end: a few months of inactivity, with pay. The gilded cage. Then, crap assignments. Nothing to keep my profile high or build up my rep. Eventually, my book deal would shrivel up, bought out by a publisher uninterested in a reporter with no juice.

"Maybe circumstances will change and we'll get this report on the network," Gus said.

Yeah, circumstances could change. I could swallow my pride, go down to Atlantic City and betray the kids to the police. Maybe they would compromise and allow me to just turn in JD: he could use some rehabilitation. They probably wouldn't: Wasserman had mentioned Alicea specifically.

"Until then, don't even contact me unless you're willing to play ball. Are you listening, Randy?"

In fact, except for when he first looked at his notes, he had only mentioned Alicea.


A few months out of action were enough to kill a type-A character like me. There's only so much handball you can play, only so many lunches with the guys in the sports department. The first week felt like vacation, the next month like purgatory, until I started pacing through my studio in the middle of the afternoon, craving the sound of a floater over my shoulder and the sight of a police barricade in front of me. I was a chronic case, but Gus would hear nothing of reassignment until I caved in on selling out Alicea and JD.

Oh, I made little projects for myself. Ship in the bottle stuff, mostly. I snooped around the Joe Bell story discreetly, making an inquiry here and there and keeping tabs on the lucky stiffs who were assigned the story. I was hoping to find something to clear the congressman: some sign of foul play, some indication that the whole thing was a setup or a fabrication. The network had a digital video of him and the girls in action, but videos can lie, and I hoped this was one of those cases.

Unfortunately, while videos lie and congressman lie, Bell wouldn't lie about the video. He called me and confirmed that it was legit: he had indeed spent the evening with the underage girls. He swore to me that they told him they were 18, and I believed him. Hell, they had to lie to get onto the casino floor. He swore he was drunk, and there was no doubting that as well. And he swore that he was deeply, abjectly sorry for the grief that he brought upon his wife, his daughters, and his constituents. I told him I would pass his feelings along if they ever let me write another article.

The part that didn't add up was the video itself: no videos on the Atoll, remember? It was alleged to be a security video, but I've seen security footage and it doesn't look like that: all the faces were clear, as if the camera knew who to point to and when. I did some digging into the backgrounds of the girls, thinking that maybe one had stashed a minicam into the room, but the trail was cold. I was only able to get the name of one of the juveniles, a Debbie Zisk, whose name was leaked by a tabloid. It took every resource I could muster while on suspension to turn up a nearly blank page on her: average student at a sprawling regional school, no important relatives or ties to anything political. Just a trouble making kid who made serious trouble for a congressman with a drinking problem.

I watched Joe Bell's career unravel daily on the morning news. His seat was vacant by March, as he resigned a few weeks before demands for his removal could peak. Even an old supporter like me had to concede that it was time for him to step down; a few years away from Washington would give him a chance to sober up and heal his family. But between his indiscretions and the Atlantic City fires, the moderate platform for vigilante violence was disintegrating. Wasserman called the scenes I covered some of the worst violence the nation had seen in five years, and he was right. War hawks jumped on the incidents, demanding tougher laws and more jails and an even more high-tech McCoy force. With all the graphic footage (much of it supplied by yours truly) and no Joe Bell to speak with the voice of reason, harsh, vindictive laws were earning support on the House floor. Had Travis Hood been captured in early April, he would have been sentenced to fifteen years in prison, with no rehabilitation options. Under the circumstances, there was no way I would turn Alicea in to the authorities, even if I was inclined to do so: they would lock her away forever.


The weather snapped sometime in Early April. I was about ready to snap, too. Days were starting to blend together, and I stopped caring about the documentary or working or even writing hard news again. I kept a resignation letter on my coffee table; I was toying with the idea of going back up to Dartmouth, maybe opening a sports bar, maybe trying to get a gig teaching in the journalism department. You know things are getting bad when Randy Stone starts thinking about leaving New York City.

Then my Turing Machine broke down.

I had been using the little gray box as my doppelganger more and more as my suspension wore on. Oh, I had always used it as a stand in to marketers and other people I didn't want to talk to. Sometimes, I could even fool Gus with it. Most people's Turings are glorified answering machines, but the guys in R&D at the network were always setting me up with the latest artificial intelligence, and I'm in a unique position in that hundreds of hours of video of me are on file at the network. That makes it easy for the Turing to build a lifelike avatar of me, complete with a day-old growth of beard if someone contacts me in the morning or a slight frizz to my hair on a rainy day. If I program the old girl carefully, a casual acquaintance would never be able to tell avatar Randy from the real deal.

By April, I only downloaded messages from the Turning Machine every few days. My avatar was perfectly capable of turning away solicitors, setting up lunch engagements, and telling Gus to go to hell. But I woke up one morning to find the error light flashing. A quick inspection revealed that my programming had been scrambled: virtual Randy was babbling, and the babble was deteriorating. I quickly tried to retrieve messages, but the files were all corrupted: someone had slipped a virus into my root directory.

The chip-heads at the network had hooked me up with some killer anti-virus software, so I plugged a card right into the back of my Turing. Worse than no effect: the anti-virus booted up and promptly crashed. Meanwhile, virtual Randy stuttered and flickered on the screen. I watched helplessly as my avatar died in my arms.

Then, virtual Randy appeared to pull it together. "H-H-Hold please," he said, as if addressing me. I tried to remember if "hold please" was part of the interface I programmed, or perhaps it was a default in the artificial intelligence. I popped open the receiver, entered my security code, and requested access to the program.

"Program is being updated," Turing Randy said.

Updated? By whom? It was close to April Fools Day, but the jokers at the network wouldn't dare crash my system on a lark. I cut off the cellular connection, but as I feared, it was too late: whatever was rewriting my Turing program had already been uploaded.

Virtual Randy blinked on and off the screen, speaking in clipped syllables. "Network connection: offline," he said. "Secondary storage: disabled. Security of message transfer confirmed."

Then, suddenly, the interface was smooth. My avatar was his typical handsome self, and he smiled at me.

"Hello Randy," he said.

"Hello Randy," I replied.

"Actually," my twin said, all the while smiling coolly. "I'm a short, interactive messaging program."

"Well, you're very handsome for a short, interactive messaging program."

"I apologize for corrupting so much of your Turing technology. It was the only way to ensure that no eavesdropping software was enabled. This message traveled through the network fully encrypted, and should only be activated when you can confirm that you are in the room, alone, and under no surveillance."

I hate when computers give the orders and humans obey. "It's safe," I said.

"You have not secured the room. The sender of this program went to great lengths to ensure security and expects the same consideration from you."

"Whatever." Someone had sent a file into my machine, made it rewrite my Turing software so it would kill my cellular connection and use my own image to deliver a message, then had the gall to give the program a snotty attitude about security. I doubted that the ocular sensors on the gray box were enabled, but I obliged the machine by closing the shades and snooping in the flower vase my mom gave me for my birthday for a microphone. It wasn't a long shot that Gus or Wasserman was spying on me - Gus probably spied on me when I was in his good graces, to make sure I didn't abuse the expense account - but most snooping is done over the network, and the interactive messaging program had already taken care of that problem.

"The perimeter is secure," I said mockingly to the machine. "It's just you, me, and the toaster, although the toaster has been looking at me funny lately."

The program was not designed for sarcasm. "This message is urgent," it said, my digital face becoming very serious. "We must meet at the location designated below, at the date and time listed below."

Information flashed across the screen. "Uh, who is 'we?'" I asked the avatar.

"The identity of the sender cannot be safely included in this message," replied the computer. "However, I must assure you that this matter is of grave importance, both to you and Alicea Mann."

With that, the image faded, but I was reeling. There was Alicea's name again. Suddenly, the world revolved around her. I tore my Turing Machine chip from chip for more information, but the entire program seemed to have disappeared. If I wanted answers, I would have to show up for this face-to-face meeting.

I was going back to Atlantic City.


It was a warm spring day, but not warm enough for the beach, especially that desolate part of the beach near the south inlet. There were no big buildings there to buffer you from the wind, which whirled all at once off the ocean and the bay. She was easy enough to spot: the tall, slender black woman with her thick curls tied back, looking very casual as she tried to stay warm under a beach blanket. I tightened my hat around my brow as I knelt beside her.

"Salome, what a surprise," I said to the private investigator from the firm with the unlikely name of Valley Green Enterprises.

"Nobody goes to the beach in this town," she said, peering through sunglasses at the motor boats and sailboats negotiating the channel. "Do you notice that? It's all the casinos, as if these gamblers would die if they were exposed to fresh air for ten seconds.

"It's always been like that," I said, flipping the top off her picnic basket: sandwiches, cornbread, beer, and long-range surveillance equipment. "Ever since I was a kid."

She looked at me over her sunglasses and smiled. "Oh? You came to Atlantic City as a child."

"All the time. Mom loved the slots. My brother loved the salt water taffy. I like the ocean."

"Really," she said, fixing her glasses back over her eyes and watching the water. "That's interesting."

I pulled my collar up to fight off the wind. "It is?"

"Well, more interesting than sitting here on a stakeout by myself." She smiled coyly. "Help yourself to a snack, although I must warn you that the Listener is pretty spicy."

"I'll stick to beer, although it is quite a spread."

She patted the basket. "You think you have recording gear at the network. I can pick up a conversation in any boat on the channel right now. This is cutting edge."

"I take it that's what we're doing," I said as I sat beside her, turning my collar to the wind. "Spying on one of those boats." Hell, we weren't exactly inconspicuous, an over-dressed interracial couple enjoying a picnic in 30-mph winds.

"The 30-foot cabin cruiser approaching from the bay, to be specific," she said. "You'll notice the absence of any Coast Guard vessels. Our friends have the patrols scheduled."

I watched the big boat cut waves as it entered the channel. There was nothing special about it. "What am I looking for?"

She took off her glasses, wiping them with the hem of her skirt. "Try looking through these."

She handed me the glasses. Suddenly, everything was just five feet away, or so it appeared. The boat had no markings: not even a Coast Guard registration. The pilot wore a suit and tie. "He doesn't look like he's out for a Sunday cruise."

"Not at all. That ship came up here from Virginia, to meet party of the second part . . . here they come, like clockwork."

She pointed out a fishing boat to me, approaching from the ocean. Again, the crew was overdressed, and they didn't look interested in catching fish. The cruiser and the fishing boat tied off. Some crew hoisted two large crates out of the cabin of the cruiser. They lifted the cargo onto the fishing boat using the crane designed to haul fishing nets. They repeated the process several times.

"This show's boring with the sound off," Salome said, reaching into her basket and turning on her listening gadget.

". . . don't have a lotta' faith in this Russian shit," said one voice.

Another voice, sounding very smooth. "We tested everything. The lasers can pierce armor no sweat. The pulsers are sturdy: there's better ones out there, but not at the price."

"I know they'll work under testing conditions," said the first voice, the pilot of the fishing trawl, sounding irritated. "I don't want a power surge if the thing gets a drop of water in it."

"They've sured up the casings since the last time we bought from them. This is standard Russian military issue, the kind they used in Vladivostok."

I turned to Salome in alarm. "Weapons?"

"Big guns," she said. "The seller is one of the largest on the East Coast. The buyer handles purchases for a certain vigilante cell in New York City. Many of their transactions take place offshore, far from prying eyes. Atlantic City has recently become a popular destination."

"But they aren't far from your prying eyes," I said, offering her binoculars back to her. "For whom are you collecting this information."

She smiled widely; her teeth were perfect and beautiful. "I can't tell you that, Randy."

"Then why am I here?"

"I can reveal some things to you that I couldn't four months ago," she said. "I can explain some things to you about Alicea Mann, and tell you why she might be in trouble."

Alicea: there she was again. That was the carrot that had brought me out there. I asked Salome to fill me in on everything she could tell me.

"I'll do that," she said. On the channel, the two boats separated. "First, I have to ask you: do you believe in the Armorlitia?"

I laughed. Might as well ask a grown man if he believes in the Easter Bunny.


The Armorlitia has popped up about a dozen times already in this story. It's important to recognize that capitalization made a big difference at this point. The (capital A) Armorlitia means one thing; the (lower case a) armorlitia something very different.

There are armorlitias all over the country. They are the descendants of the chartered posses and neighborhood watch teams that were legal before the VPA were passed. Many of these organizations simply went underground when vigilantism was outlawed. Nationwide efforts to get these citizen groups to turn in their weapons were generally limp-wristed; a posse with 100 guns could turn ten of them in to local authorities and the matter would be put to rest.

Every few months, the McCoys would put the screws to some armorlitia out in Wisconsin or one of the big square states. Sometimes the armorlitia has been involved in some sort of violent activity, sometimes not; their very existence is illegal. The McCoys have made a science out of publicizing these busts; they're the only sting operations in the world for which press passes are issued. They 're lovely exercises in theatrical overkill. Officers in flight suits hover around some silo out in the sticks while a tank tears down a wall to reveal the weapons stockpiled inside. For big busts, old Charlie McCoy would fly in from Washington and ride the tank, hanging from the muzzle as it tore down a barn door. Then, the statistics are trotted out: $3.2 million dollars of hardware, 17 high-yield CFCs, over 1,500 metric tons of explosive force, or whatever. Everyone smile for the camera: the countryside is safe.

While McCoy tactics kept local militias underground, rumors began to spread that these groups were more than just localized cells. There was some circumstantial evidence: similarity of makeup and tactics among armorlitias thousands of miles apart, national flare-ups that seemed to be part of some agenda, and other coincidences. Radio commentators and some journalists began to talk about a capital-A Armorlitia, a national shadow organization that sanctioned and supported the local groups. This was a big-time conspiracy theory. Depending on whom you talked to, the president or the pope or some Middle East sultan was at the center of it all.

The public began to clamor for the McCoy Units to bust this national Armorlitia. The McCoys responded with a six month sting, targeting dozens of small militias throughout the country. Their determination: there was no affiliation whatsoever among these scattered groups. They found no evidence linking one militia to another. The McCoys would continue to aggressively defend the public from localized sects, but would not waste resources chasing a mysterious entity that did not really exist.


"So you believe the government's party line about the Armorlitia?" Salome asked. We walked along the beach, the wind howling around us.

"You have to understand that I've done a lot of investigating myself," I replied.

"And your conclusions?"

I collected my thoughts. "Any connection between armorlitias around the country can be attributed to the likelihood that they share weapon suppliers. That's more of a connection than the McCoys were willing to admit, but linking them all into a conspiracy based on this connection is a little contrived. It's a little like linking my mom to the mayor's wife because they both shop FAO Schwarz."

"That sounds like it came right from one of your stories."

"Thank you. And that demonstration you just gave me doesn't change my opinion. Naturally, a large supplier of weapons would have connections with several of these little militias."

"And what about the similarities in structure, tactics, and policies?"

"Salome, people are the same wherever you go, especially the people who are drawn to this sort of lifestyle. A church picnic in Oregon is probably exactly the same as a church picnic in New Hampshire, yet no one suggests that the people in Oregon called the people in New Hampshire to organize it."

"Right." She looked out over the ocean, probably a little frustrated at my skepticism. "And what about Dennis Zane, Randy. How does he fit in to your world of coincidences?"

I grabbed her and turned her to me. "How do you know that name?" I demanded.

Grabbing Salome was a mistake. She laid a firm hand on my wrist, and I felt that she could crush it if she wanted to. "That got your attention," she said as she removed my hand.

It had, and I realized how dumb I was being. A few months ago, I was accusing Wasserman of manipulating people like Zane, but now I was rigorously denying the Armorlitia. You can't have it both ways. You have to open your mind up to possibilities.

We found a park bench on the quiet end of the boardwalk, where houses and old hotels, not casinos, back up onto the beach. She took a computer and disk from her picnic basket. I reached into my breast pocket for my portable. "If you want to show me something . . ."

She grinned devilishly. "I'll upload this information into your system if you want, but I have to warn you. The disc contains a berserker virus. If every protected file isn't deleted from the hard drive within twelve hours after uploaded, it erases the entire hard drive. If you're attached to a server, it erases everything on the server. Everything is wiped out except the information on the disc itself.

I scratched my beard and put away my computer. "This message will self-destruct in three seconds," I said.

"Just a little data protection protocol from your good friends at Valley Green."

"Well, I've seen your software in action," I said. "My Turing avatar still has a nervous tick from what you did to it. I think he needs counseling."

She smiled, then turned her screen to face me. "Recognize him?"

I nodded. "Dennis Michael Zane."

She turned the screen back. ". . .Involved in a minor hostage incident which resulted in the destruction of a tavern called the Bashful Banana."

"I know. I was there."

"I remember." She tapped a few keys, then again showed me the screen. "What about him?"

I shook my head.

"David Martin Zorich, 27-year-old political activist. He was assaulted after distributing leaflets on the Clemson University campus."

That jogged my memory. "He was involved in that flare up at Clemson?"

"He started it. Not directly, but he was the instigator. His leaflets identified several students as being part of a racial hatred group. A buddy of one of the guys Zorich accused beat Zorich up, but word had gotten around campus. There were several incidents of violence, and several vigilante teams got involved and consequently apprehended."

She flipped the lid on her computer. "Notice a trend?"

"The initials," I said.

"And the modus operandi. But the initials: DMZ. Demilitarized zone."

"Cute, if dramatic."

"Yes. Any ambitious investigator would make the connection. But the tactics are designed to move the instigator to the periphery of the event. Zorich's assault didn't even make the papers outside of Clemson, and Zane was overshadowed by the violence that followed."

I felt a lump in my throat. "Salome, do you remember the name of the girl Joe Bell was caught with?"

She shook her head.

"Debbie Zisk."

She nodded coolly. "I suppose we can assume that her middle name is 'Marie' or something and I can add her to the database."

"In other words," I said, "these DMZ people have a habit of causing trouble, then slinking away before they get connected to it."

"Precisely," she said. "We call it an 'instigation agenda.' Somebody is very good at fomenting vigilante violence."

"And you think it's the Armorlitia."

She shook her head. "I'm not sure, but it's what I'm being paid to find out. There's someone in a position of power who needs definite answers."

I thought about the connection between the Armorlitia and this instigation agenda. Too much of it didn't add up, and I told Salome what I thought. "Most militias I've seen don't go in for subtlety. Anyway, it's armorlitias who get busted after these outbreaks of violence. That's what happened in Clemson. Here, it was the Black Street Herd that took the biggest hits."

"We're still filling in the pieces," she said. "Maybe it's a way of eliminating the competition. Cause some violence, get the McCoy's attention, then move in after the smaller groups are knocked out."

I couldn't swallow that theory whole. "That's too technical to be practical," I said.

Her eyes widened. "Do you remember stories of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover?"

"Yeah," I said, making the connection. "They refused to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia, because some mob bosses had dirt on Hoover."

"Just as the McCoy Units actively refuse to admit the existence of the Armorlitia. In a situation like that, the government almost becomes a partner to the criminal element. They're pre-programmed to look the other way."

She had a point.

"Problem is," she said, "we have never been able to link an instigation agenda to any Armorlitia activities until now. From what we hear, there's an Armorlitia convention on the Atoll in a few weeks."

I cleaned out my ears. "Come again?"

She sighed. "A convention, Randy. It's probably advertised as an insurance conference, or a computer conference, but it's a militia conference for all the regional ringleaders. It will be out on the Atoll, away from the public eye, in an executive conference center with it's own security. They'll be two miles off the coast of a town that's been all but taken over by the McCoy Units."

"And the McCoy Units have no interest in the Armorlitia," I said, adding it all up. There was no Black Street Herd to get wind of things and cause trouble, and the locals will turn anything suspicious regarding tech hardware directly over to the McCoys, who will be in position to bury or redirect it.

"There will be weapons dealers there," she continued, "all spirited away in plush elegance, far from the public eye. Millions of dollars worth of goods will be loaded off the docks behind the Atoll."

"What does Valley Green plan to do about it?"

She bit her lip. "Gather evidence, then turn it over to our client."

"That sounds a little passive."

She gave me a dirty look. "That's what we do."

She didn't like it. She had all this evidence, albeit much of it circumstantial, but she wasn't allowed to act on it.

"Now how does Alicea fit into all this?" I asked.

"She's the missing link," Salome replied. "According to our sources, her presence in the city prompted the initiative to send Zane in."

"I thought your theory was that they wanted to create a power vacuum."

"My guess is that that isn't enough," she replied. She began typing into her computer again. "Word got through channels that a telepath was in Atlantic City. That fact caught someone's attention, for some reason. When we first contacted you, and offered Alicea employment, I knew there was interest in Alicea among members of the Armorlitia, although I'm not sure why."

My imagination kicked in. Maybe they wanted to recruit her. Maybe they wanted to kill her. Maybe they wanted to perform experiments on her brain so they could engineer an army of telepathic babies.

" Anyway," Salome continued, "that and the upcoming conference were the joint reasons for sending in Zane. They may have wanted her out of Atlantic City."

"I can see that, assuming you buy everything else. A real telepath is dangerous. She can find out what's going on in two seconds, if you're planning some covert weapons expo."

"Plus, she's a valuable ally to have on your side." She showed me the screen again. "Recognize him?"

My jaw dropped. "Wasserman," I said.

She didn't acknowledge my reaction. "We have no hard evidence linking him to anything, but he did place a phone call to a known militia organizer on December 17th."

My head sunk into my hands. "The day I sent the first footage to the studio."

She put her hand on my shoulder. "This is what I was trying to tell you when we first met. Alicea attracted a lot of attention. The Armorlitia wants Alicea. They want her alive, according to my sources, but they want her. Now, will you let me help her?"

I looked up at Salome. She shared a lot of information with me, although I had no way of verifying how much of it was legitimate. She was an expert about shady organizations, but wasn't she part of a shady organization herself? Who was Valley Green, after all? They could be part of the Armorlitia themselves, and my conversation with Salome could have been a disinformation session.

All I knew for certain was that I had brought all this attention down on Alicea when I pointed my camera in her face. That's when the DMZs and "instigation agendas" and Valley Greens came knocking. It made sense: Alicea was a diamond in the rough, a would-be major player in this business stuck in the slums. Everybody wanted her for something, and it was my fault. The last thing I wanted to do was turn her over to Salome and possibly cause further damage. I needed to let Alicea know what was going on, and isolate her from Wasserman, Salome, and whatever other treacherous suitors might be hiding in the dunes.

"I'll think about it," I said.

Chapter 2: Arm's Reach

Everyone was right about one thing: I did know how to contact Alicea, not that I was going to give that secret away. She had a secret web account, one all her own: Travis and the others didn't know about it, so it had never been used for vigilante connections. It was set up through false names and bounced off multiple servers, an arrangement Shorty Rock had set up for her months ago. I left her a message, she responded, and we set up a meeting.

Too many people were after Alicea; I couldn't run the risk of being followed. I walked the streets of Atlantic City all day. It's hard to be inconspicuous on the boardwalk in early April; unless you're a senior citizen carrying a jar of tokens, you look out of place. I rolled out to the Atoll and back, cruised some neighborhoods where you never see a white face, all the while glancing over my shoulder. Yeah, I had a tail: a multi-tail, three or four of them tag teaming me. The same kid in a college sweater kept popping up, then disappearing when I rounded a corner, only to be replaced by a comrade. Organized, but amateurish. I turned around in the middle of a block and walked right back toward one: he froze and almost panicked before feigning a non-chalant stroll right past me.

There was no way to get to Alicea without ditching these clowns, whoever they were. I bought a few roses from a street vendor, then picked out an old bungalow by the bay that was obviously unoccupied. I rang the doorbell and waited patiently. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of my shadows searching for a pay phone. When he was barely in earshot, I pounded on the door. "Alicea! Open up: it's me!" I shouted, making sure sweater boy could hear me. I waited a few more seconds, then dropped the roses on the porch and walked away shaking my head.

Two blocks away, I grabbed a coffee at a corner deli and watched the show. They bought it: sweater boy and two partners established an amateur surveillance routine, one hiding in the back property, the others circling the block. None of them made any effort to find me.

"Who lives at 3191?" I asked the Turk who ran the deli.

"All this block is summer rental property," he replied.

Good, I thought. My shadows could watch the house until Memorial Day.

I stayed cautious even after ditching the clown troupe, changing cabs twice on my way to the north end of the boardwalk. There, the old casinos, the most garish ones ever constructed, were long ago closed, and they hung over the boardwalk like ancient ruins. Far from Atoll entrances, this was the forgotten part of the boardwalk, littered with 24-hour bars and etching parlors and arcades you'd be nuts to let your kids go into. Madame Paisley's Tarot Readings fit right in to the surroundings, but Alicea didn't.

I parted the beads that served as a doorway and there she was, dressed like the gypsy princess, her hair longer and braided now, her delicate features filled out a little. "I guess this makes sense," I said, gesturing towards the fortune-telling bric-a-brac that surrounds her.

She smiled warmly. "You have no idea how money you can make when you're good at this."

"And I'll bet you're the best," I said, sitting across from her, observing the crystal ball and cards on the table between us. "What happened to the warehouse?"

She took my hand in hers. "I quit. After Travis and Julie got caught, I thought it was best to make a clean break. New apartment, new life. Would you like a reading?"

I felt her fingertips caress my knuckles. "You do palms?"

She drew in close to me. "I don't know palms or tarot, but it looks good. Once I tell them something I know about them, people are like bank machines."

"Doesn't all that reading hurt?"

He hand moved up my forearm, rubbing me gently. "Oh, it's not that much reading. One quick glance and I have all I need. The rest is just interpreting people's body language, just like any fortune teller who can't read minds would do."

I took both her hands in mine. "Well, then, Madame Paisley, what's my fortune?"

"Let me see . . . You are about to be reunited with someone very close to you, someone you miss very much."

"You're right so far."

She laughed, circling my palm with her fingertip playfully. "I see you and this special person together . . . someplace quiet . . ." She winked at me. "A bedroom? Like, right after this person gets off work?"

I blushed. "There's no hurry."

"No reason to wait, either." She leaned across the table, slipped an arm around my neck, and kissed me.

I eventually pulled away. "Actually, there is a reason to wait. I was followed coming to meet you."

She was puzzled. "By whom?"

"My first guess would be Valley Green, except that the people following me bungled everything, and Valley Green seemed like a professional outfit. Outside of that, it could be anyone. Everyone wants a piece of you. That's the main reason I came to see you: to warn you."

We met again at twilight atop the old historic lighthouse. It was a good location: out of the way, forgotten. A tail would be obvious following us through the ramshackle neighborhoods of the north beach or into the greens around the old structure. I watched her approach from the observation deck. Behind her, the ocean turned purple, then black, as the April sun began to set over the bay in the west. The neon and the lasers of the Atoll flashed brilliantly as darkness descended. I turned when I heard her footsteps climbing the spiral staircase. The gypsy princess had loosened her braids and dispatched her silver jewelry. Her hair swept over her cheeks again, set afire by the setting sun behind her.

I told her everything.

"So the network wants me in jail," she said when I was finished.

"That's their story," I replied.

"You don't buy it."

I leaned back on the brass railing, watching shadows fall over the bayside marinas. "It's standard in documentaries and investigative reports for us to interview people who readily admit to committing crimes. We darken their faces, get their stories, and protect their identities. In some cases, we're forced to reveal our sources, usually under the threat of a court injunctions. But that only happens in extreme cases, and nobody threatened me with a court order."

She brushed back her hair. "And no one said anything about Jeremy."

"Not really. You were the network's primary concern, and Valley Green is only interested in you."

She was nervous now, twisting her hair about her finger. "I thought it would be nice to be so wanted."

I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her. "My guess is that it's your powers that separate you. Salome made some allegations: they said the Armorlitia is looking for you . . ."

"Why?" she asked, turning to face me. My arms held her. "How do they know who I am?"

"Wasserman," I said. "He saw my documentary. He's somehow the kingpin for this operation."

Her breath became short.

"I realize this is my fault," I continued.

"No, Randy," her voice was faint.

"I talked you into the story. I made you demonstrate your powers. I should have been suspicious when Wasserman started asking questions."

"Don't blame yourself."

"I'm going to help you out of this. I promise."

She pulled away. "It still doesn't make sense," she said. "So this guy thinks I would make a great addition to the Armorlitia. What makes him think I would go along? I'm not a gun they can point at someone to read minds."

"And why would they want you in jail?" I asked. "That's why Salome's story doesn't add up for me."

The sun dipped behind a high rise apartment. Shadows crept over us. "Their going to close this place soon," Alicea said.

Her back was to me. I draped my arms over her; she leaned back and rested her head against my chin. "Has my fortune changed?"

She pulled my arms more tightly around her. "Right now, I wouldn't feel safe without you."

"Maybe my hotel would be safer than your apartment . . ."

Her eyes widened as I said those words. I didn't have time to ask what was wrong.

"Run," she said. "Oh, shit: run"

A figure came into view outside. An armored figure, hovering with the aid of flight boots, rose above the railing, brandishing a percussion rifle.


Glass shattered all around us as we took what cover we could find. But there wasn't much cover: the observation deck was a glass-enclosed ring, open on all sides. A second thug closed in on us, again with a rifle and flight boots. They weren't McCoys: their gear was in disrepair.

"Down the stairs!" I shouted, but we only started down the spiral staircase before laser fire greeted us from below. We were ambushed. We hid around the doorframe to the observation deck, wondering whether the fly boys would reach us before the gunman on the stairs.

"Wait," Alicea said, and she motioned to me with her finger. I couldn't hear the flight jets of one of our pursuers: had he left? Alicea slung herself into the doorway. I followed, only to be face to face with the Armorlitia goon, who stood there and hesitated despite a clean shot at Alicea. He had landed to save flight power, but he wouldn't fire. He needed Alicea in one piece.

He grabbed at her arm, and I drove my foot into a seam in his armor. Travis wouldn't have been impressed, but it knocked him backwards for a second. He was awkward in the gear, like he wasn't used to it. He fired an errant shot at me; another kick knocked him to the edge of the railing, with no more glass to protect us from a drop. I kept myself too tight for the range of his rifle. Using all my strength, I pulled off his helmet.

Sweater Boy.

Now I could pummel the kid's face, so he wasn't a threat. But the other goon had landed. Alicea, crouched beside me, turned to face him. He aimed that percussion rifle and fired. Alicea leapt for cover, but cover wasn't there when she landed. The whole deck buckled. The wood beneath us cracked; only by grabbing the now bent brass railing could I keep sweater boy and myself from sliding off the side of the tower. Alicea's dive landed her on some unstable beams. They collapsed as she flipped herself over on them, somersaulting out into the spring twilight.

She seemed to fall for eternity. My heart was in my throat. The Armorlitia kid was in no position to do anything. She tumbled, screaming, through the night air.

A winged flight suit cut through the night air. I thought it was a vision: JD? No, this was a high-tech suit; full body armor with wing and heel jets, hardware to put the Armorlitia to shame. The stainless steel angel closed in on Alicea as she fell. I thought of Amanda Douglass, the Jersey City girl. I thought of all the fumbles I had seen, and their gory aftermath.

The suited figure grabbed Alicea on the decent and kept dropping until it shaved the ground. Then, they swooped in a wide arc, the figure depositing Alicea a safe distance away. My attacker drew a bead on them, but couldn't aim reliably from a distance. I ripped the rifle from the gloved hands of sweater boy, subdued him with its butt against his jaw, took aim, and just missed my flying target. He turned to polish me off, but the winged hero blasted him with percussion beams mounted in the wings. The militia man was hurled backwards, his body crashing hard into the roof of the lighthouse.

Our winged comrade hovered for a moment to watch as our armored attacker's limp body slid down the curved roof and thudded against what was left of the observation deck. Then, a laser blast crackled against the winged suit. The staircase gunman had arrived. He turned his gun on me as our friend lost altitude and crashed in the green below. I rolled away from his blast. My shot missed; I wasn't that handy with a rifle. He took another shot, and I felt the searing heat as it melted the broken glass beside me. I aimed high, missing my attacker but bringing down mortar and plaster upon his head. He was dazed. I charged past him and down the stairs.

He followed, taking wild shots down the center of the staircase. I dared not fire back; the percussion rifle could collapse the stairs right on top of me. His laser blasts superheated and disintegrated the old cedar steps. My foot went right through one weak plank; I freed myself just in time to avoid a direct hit.

Finally, I was far enough down to risk a jump the rest of the way. Alicea appeared at the entrance to the keeper's quarters. She motioned to me with her arm. I was still about a story off the ground. Peering up the middle column, I saw the gunman aligning another shot at me. I hopped onto the railing and into the pit, landing hard, my knees buckling below me. His shot disintegrated the railing where I had once stood. I crawled past Alicea, noticing the weapon in her hand as she guided me to safety.

It was a percussion cannon, pulled right from the wing of our armored benefactor. It made the rifle I took from sweater boy look like a slingshot.

She secured the weapon against a door frame, engaged it, and hit the ground beside me. We scrambled through the keeper's house and out the door, the sound of crackling timber supports at our backs. We saw the damage from the outside; the cannon blew a hole right through the body of the lighthouse.

I dusted myself off. "There goes another historic landmark," I said.

"Guess who rescued us," Alicea said.

I had my suspicions. Salome's ankle was sprained and she had some burns, but top-shelf armor bore the brunt of the fall. One button unclamped her helmet and breastplate, her hair tumbling out as she tossed the helmet aside. "I hate to say this, Mr. Street Wise Randy Stone," she said, "but as you can guess by all this, you are an easy person to track."


"I'm too old for this field-op work, but when I saw you bungling around with those militia grunts, I had a feeling someone was going to get hurt."

Salome led us to a Valley Green safehouse, a handsome condo north of the city in Brigantine. She carefully performed maintenance on her armor, vacuuming out sand and soldering the wires where the cannon was disconnected. We watched the lights of Atlantic City from a tinted bay window, which allowed us to see out but no one to see in.

"One of the problems with the Armorlitia is that they don't attract the best talent. Those green horns chasing you were supposed to capture Alicea alive. But once the shooting starts, they tend to lose focus on the objective."

Alicea was still shaking with fear. I put my arms around her.

"Don't let me interrupt you two," Salome said. "I would at least expect a little gratitude for my daring rescue."

"Excuse me if I don't gush," I replied. "But what's the old cliché: out of the frying pan?"

Salome's shoulders slumped. "Randy, we've been over this and over this. I'm not your enemy. Haven't I just proved it once and for all?"

She had, but I was still suspicious. Maybe it was because I spent the whole day being followed, but I was suspicious of everything. I pointed to the armor she repaired. "You never told me about that."

She flashed her perfect white teeth. "It was none of your business. It wasn't supposed to have any impact on my assignment, but all Valley Green employees are trained in full tech combat."

"Thank you," Alicea said, "for catching me."

"You see, the young lady has some manners. She was raised right."

"Not me," I said. "They don't teach good manners in Tribeca."

Salome shook her head. "Not true. If I learned them in the South Bronx, then they teach them everywhere."

We tried our best to lighten things up, but gentle banter felt flat. We were just too tense, too geared up. Alicea spoke. "Where do I go from here?"

Salome put aside the flight suit and joined us by the window. "The next step is up to you, child," she said. "I think we've seen that the Armorlitia is after you. They won't rest until they've picked you up. My guess is that they'll monitor every move you or Randy make until they get you."

"I could go to the police."

"Except that's what the network wanted," I said. "Salome claims that Wasserman is involved with the militia, but he wants you in jail and they want you as part of the team."

"I never claimed to have all the answers," Salome said. "I'm investigating a weapons operation, not your case. It may be that the Armorlitia has some plans for you even if you are in prison."

Alicea squeezed her eyes tightly. "I'm very, very tired of running."

"You have another option," Salome said, turning Alicea to face her. "You can join Valley Green. We have the resources to protect you. We can train you to use your powers effectively and make a good living at it. Randy doesn't trust me much, but you can read my mind: you know that I just want you to join the team."

They stared at each other for a second. Was Alicea reading her? I wished that her eyes would glow when she used her powers, that way I'd know for sure.

"I know you can keep me safe. But what about Randy? And what about the Armorlitia?"

I didn't want to be the reason she turned her back on Valley Green. A few months ago, she didn't join because she was tired of the superhero lifestyle. That I could understand, but circumstances were different. This may have been her best chance to make something of herself, and I wouldn't stand in her way.

"I can take care of myself," I said. "They won't bother a reporter and risk the exposure."

"And with our organization, you can take the fight to the Armorlitia," Salome said. "Not directly, of course, but we monitor their whereabouts, keep them in check."

Alicea shook her head. "That's not enough."

She stepped away from Salome and I, away from the window. "I can spend the rest of my life working for you, hanging around restaurants, reading the minds of suspicious characters and passing the information on to you. You'll keep me safe. But I'll never have a choice. Walk away from Valley Green, and I'm out on the street, at the mercy of these assholes. Meanwhile, they're out there, using the Atoll as their private armory. The whole situation is unacceptable."

"Welcome to my life," Salome said.

Alicea examined the armor lying on the floor. She held up the silver helmet, turning it to admire the sleek design and complex mechanisms. She turned back to us. "I have a better idea. The only way I'll ever be free- the only way Randy will ever be free- is if we take the fight to them directly. Now. With all the activity on the Atoll you're talking about, we can hit them, expose them, and scare them underground."

Salome nearly laughed. "That's ambitious, but pretty naïve."

"Alicea," I said, "this isn't you and Travis beating up drug dealers. This is a national organization. You saw what they were capable of on the lighthouse."

"And that was just a small hit squad," Salome added, "with inexperienced members. There are hundreds of members active in this area at any given time, and all of them have plenty of tech at their disposal."

Alicea held up the helmet. "So does Valley Green. Call in your troops. Hit them hard. Randy and I will help."

Salome shook her head. "Dear, dear child. We aren't budgeted for that."

Alicea glared. "Budgeted?"

"Poor little thing, you're used to crime fighting as a labor of love. Valley Green is a company. Nobody would like to attack the Armorlitia more than I would, but if I asked my superiors to send agents and equipment, they would ask who was paying for it. We would be pulling agents off corporate cases, some of which are just as righteous and important as this one."

Alicea couldn't believe what she was hearing; it was like having your life reduced to dollars and cents. "I am here to spy and observe on weapon trading in this area," Salome continued. I report my findings to a client, who I believe is in a position to take action politically, not with force. While in this area, I'm within my budget to try to recruit you."

So that's what our little bull session on the beach was: a recruiting pitch. Salome was just priming me so I would find Alicea for her. I was being used. Again.

"I've gone to great lengths to contact you and prove that our offer is legitimate. Now, I need you to put aside this silliness about attacking the Armorlitia, and give me a straight answer: yes or no."

Alicea thought for a moment. "No," she said.

Salome shook her head. I might have expected more haggling, but she was disgusted with us. Something about her work must have killed her tolerance for idealism. "Fine. We have a spare bedroom; I won't throw you out into the night. Tomorrow morning, I'm afraid your presence here will be a liability to my objectives, so you will be on your own."

Salome stormed out of the room, probably a little hurt by the rejection from a person whose life she just saved. Alicea shuddered, feeling Salome's anger. I brought her to the couch to calm her. "You did the right thing," I said. "Gratitude only goes so far. You have to live with your decision."

"Now what?" she said, hugging me tightly and crying.

I held her, rocking her gently. "Were you serious about wanting to fight them?"

She sniffled and wiped tears away. "It's the only way."

"It just doesn't sound like you."

"For two years," she said, holding a palm outstretched, "I tried to keep the violence this far away. It was always right there: the patrols, the fights, the nights we came home with burns and cracked ribs. I kept all of it at arms reach. I figured if it was that far away from me, it couldn't hurt me, and eventually it would go away.

"You know what? As long as I kept it at arms reach, it stayed there. It was never going to go away. That was the worst place for it to be: right at my heels, hounding me in my sleep, always pushing to close in on me. It's grown now; Travis is gone, but the fear and violence is worse than it ever was."

She looked up at me, calmer now. "I've avoided taking action for too long. I can't go hide at some covert agency. I can't wait around for something to happen, like I did with Travis. I've got to get the people who are after me. You can help, Randy: if we can point a camera into the right faces, we can expose the Armorlitia."

She had a point. Live proof of the gun smuggling that Salome showed me on the inlet would cause a lot of heads to roll, including Wasserman's. But Alicea and I couldn't take on the Armorlitia by ourselves. We needed backup.

Salome sat at a computer terminal in her study. She didn't acknowledge me when I entered. "Is there anything you can offer us if we decide to hit the Armorlitia?"

She didn't look up. "My condolences?"

"This wouldn't be a suicide strike," I continued. "Just get some people out to that meeting on the Atoll, wave my camera around, catch some people in the act, then leave. We only need enough fire power to get us past their defenses. I thought maybe you . . ."

"No," she said, looking up over her glasses. "You thought wrong. I'm too old to risk my neck like that, and so are you."

She removed her glasses, wiping them wearily. "I know it's a worthy cause," she said, "and I don't want to see that little girl have to run for the rest of her life. But I offered her the only solution I have. Randy, you don't know the resources these people have."

"But you do," I said. "You can tell me."

She leaned back. "I suppose I can offer you some intelligence. But no manpower."

"Great. What about hardware?"

She rolled her eyes. "This guy wants the moon and the stars. OK. We have a rifle or two lying around that no one would miss. And that flight suit: I can claim it was destroyed in the battle. With all the damage to the lighthouse, I doubt my comptroller would blink."

"You know anybody who can operate a flight suit?" she asked.

"Yeah, we knew a couple of people who could help out."


Salome provided us with a little help, mostly in the form of intelligence. She gave me names, though: lots of them, from business leaders to politicians. But I couldn't use a word of it, because Salome's client wouldn't back her up, which meant she wouldn't back me up, which meant I would be shit out of luck if I went public. The disk she gave me even had one of those "berserker" programs on it, set only to run on my systems. The only thing her information was good for was eliminating the surprise element whePart II

Chapter 1: Pressure

I edited Armorlitia.

Not that she asked us about our plan, either. But that was a good thing. It would have taken about two seconds for a cooler head to talk me out of it.

After Salome kicked us out, I contacted Gus and asked if we could still talk, hack to hack. I told him about the names I had. I told him that my suspicions of a conspiracy had been confirmed. I didn't provide any details, mind you: not even a location. But I needed him to know what was going on.

"Randy, you worked the vigilante beat a long time. I know you have sympathy for these kids. But aren't you getting carried away?"

His face was calm, coming across the web. He looked concerned. "Gus, if you knew some of the people who are involved in this conspiracy . . ."

He cut me off. "C'mon, Randy. I've got my own list of names. You don't know everything I know, either. I've got piles of incriminating evidence sitting in my system. Some of it I can't use, some of it I choose not to."

I fumed. How could he turn his back on something like this?

"It's called balance, Randy. You can ally yourself with the power brokers, all of whom have dirty secrets, which is what Wasserman does. Or you can wallow in the dirt with the hoodlums, which is what you've chosen to do. A good journalist knows balance: how to stay out of the story until right and wrong shakes out. You used to know how to do that, Randy, but now you're too close. I have a feeling you're going to do something stupid."

I thanked him for his concern and logged off. I still trusted him, but I knew there was no way he would help me.

But was I too close? He was sure right about the "something stupid" part.

"Are you going through with this because you love me, or is there something else?" Alicea asked me. We were spending one of our sleepless nights together in a casino hotel room. Gambling until four in the morning couldn't make us drowsy enough to sleep, so we would shack up and wait for sunrise, holding each other close and planning our foolish plan.

"If its just because you love me, then I don't want you to do it," she said. "Don't do this because you think I need you to be some kind of hero."

I ran my fingers through her hair. "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't be doing this. But I'm not doing it because I love you."

She thought about that for a moment. "I suppose I can live with that."

But why was I doing it? If this was an early midlife crisis, I was going about it all the wrong way. Hell, I already had the young girlfriend, so why go thrill seeking? No, it wasn't that, and it wasn't my well-documented thirst for justice.

"You know," I told Alicea, "when I was younger, around 15, I carried a CFC piece."

Her eyes widened. "No kidding."

I nodded. "It was just a small field generator, like brass knuckles. My brother and I and one of his friends all got them at the same time. They were illegal then, but it was before the VPA and nobody thought that much of it."

"Did you go to a tough school?"

"Any New York school is tough, but ours wasn't as bad as some. I'd love to tell you that I bought it because I didn't feel safe, but mostly it was just to show off."

She snickered. "Randy the Teenage Superhero."

"Yeah, we were real tough guys. Then my brother's buddy was flashing his piece on the subway when one of the Angels caught a glimpse of it."

"What happened?"

I made a little pistol with my fingers, and pulled the trigger. "Stun gun, from across the car. Joey was flat on his back in a split second. Me and Anthony wanted to help him up, but the Angel drew bead on us."

"He wouldn't let you help your friend up?"

I shook my head. "Joey was lying there, twitching and drooling. We thought he was going to die, but he wasn't really hurt. The Angel shook us down and took our pieces. There were maybe a dozen people in the car, and they cheered him on, like he had just collared three dangerous hoods."

She leaned against my chest. "Sounds like a chapter from my life."

I thought about that incident for a long time. For years, I thought that it motivated me to cover the vigilante scene: my first-hand experience with the Subway Angels driving me to expose superhero brutality. But that night, I realized what made me so angry on that subway. It wasn't the brutality; it was the misuse of power. The Angels abused theirs, and all the Family Values and Valley Greens and Armorlitias were abusing theirs, and they were creating a system that made everyone who tried to fight them as powerless as my brother and I were on that subway.

Chapter 3: The Best you can Find

Tracking down JD: it seemed like Alicea and I were always doing it, whether we were dredging the alleys of Manhattan or the flop houses of Atlantic City. The kid was doing his best to lay low, but as good as he was at blending in, he couldn't hide the tattoos. It was just his nature to show them off. Alicea made a few queries among the street punk ladies social club, the kids Shorty Rock turned out on the street when he went into stir, looking for the guy with the dragon on his back and the hawk on his arm and the American eagle soaring across his upper thigh. It didn't take long for the trail to heat up.

JD was living in a youth hospice, but we didn't find him there. It turned out that he had found some work cooking short order in a pizza joint off the marina district. He pulled the 3-to-midnight, the stop-and-rob shift, frying cheese steaks that the counter girl slipped to patrons from behind bulletproof glass. The kitchen should have been condemned, and JD wasn't exactly filling FDA specs when it came to hygiene, but he flipped a decent burger.

He didn't even look up from the grill when we came in. "The happy couple," he mumbled, his cigarette dangling over the grill. "Guess I should be honored."

"Take five, JD," I said.

He absently flipped flank steak, still not looking up. "You don't sound like my boss."

"Your boss said it's OK," I said. "Take five or twenty or two weeks. I promised him a little publicity in exchange for your undivided attention."

He cackled. "Guess a few words from you is worth more than two weeks of sweat off my brow." He looked up. "Guess I know where I rate."

"Jeremy, we're not here to put you down," Alicea said.

"No, I'm sure you ain't." JD said, shaking his head as he dried his hands. "You just came for the fucking freak show."

I didn't follow.

"You weren't here, Randy," JD said, pulling a soda from the freezer and taking a slug. "I mean, you were around - you two were hittin' the skins then; I don't know where you're at now - but you were up north interviewing Julie or somebody. I got out of the hospital, and the little lady laid down the law."

"I kicked you out," Alicea said, her jaw set.

"Hell, yeah. Then, she started threatening me."

"I couldn't have you out hustling people. It was too risky after . . . we got caught."

JD turned to me plaintively. "I was gonna get set up with some friends of Shorty, do a little sales, maybe some courier work. But the boss over here said she'd set me up if she ever got wind of it."

"You know I would find out. You know how I would find out. You know I could dime you without ever implicating myself." Alicea's featured hardened. I knew she had to be ruthless to keep JD on a leash. I had seen him do his own thing without thinking of the consequences, whether it was stealing a credit card or crashing a swinger's party. But it was frightening to see the power she wielded. There was no mistaking it: JD was terrified of her.

"Well, Miss Mindreader's got a college degree. Plus, she can get a gig on the boardwalk telling fortunes or turning tricks or whatever."

Alicea's eyes caught fire, but she let the remark pass.

"But I don't have all that going for me. So now I'm a burger jockey. That's the fuckin' freakshow: the banger who flips burgers. The hero who makes hoagies."

He threw down his towel in disgust, took a big pull from his drink and stared at the wall.

"Kind of makes you wish you were back in the life," I said, and I could tell Alicea didn't like the way I said it. Hell, neither of us was comfortable with what we were planning. Nobody wanted to seduce JD back into the vigilante racket, but the alternative was a life on the run.

JD looked at me cock-eyed. "What the hell does that mean?"

"It means what it sounds like: Dangerbird flies again."

"Fuck you."

Alicea stepped forward. "He's serious. We need you. It's the only way."

He turned to her than looked back at me. He shook his head and threw up his hands. "This is crazy."

"We have a flight suit," I said.

"This is crazy! Shot Out! And the most fucked up thing about it is that it's you two. Travis walks through that door and starts talking like this: that I would believe. But he's in lock down . . ."

"Not for long," I said. "You're gonna help us bust him out."

JD's jaw could've hit the floor. He stared at me speechless, then turned to Alicea. She started to speak, but couldn't bring herself to say it. But she nodded, confirming that what I said was true, then turned away, embarrassed at herself. JD just looked back and forth at us.

"You're both nuts. I ain't listening to this shit," he said, grabbing a jacket as he walked out the door.


I caught up with him in the alley behind the restaurant. Alicea stayed behind; she didn't have the stomach for what we were doing, and her presence only rattled him. He wasn't in the listening mood, but I talked at him anyway. "We need some people we can trust. There's nobody in this town, or at my network, or anyplace else that we can really vouch for. All we have are you and Travis. Anybody else would sell us out, for all we know."

He just smoked his cigarette, leaning against a dumpster and watching traffic on the main drag.

"I'd go in with just you and Alicea, but Travis might have some information. When I interviewed him, he knew things. I thought somebody was just playing him for a sucker, but it turned out that he had some information on the inside. Plus, we could use some muscle."

JD blew a smoke ring.

"I don't have much to offer you, but it's a chance to get out there and fly again, and maybe if we can bring down the Armorlitia, or whoever's behind all this, we can make a difference."

He smiled. "I haven't heard that in months: 'make a difference.'"

I nodded. It was Travis' mantra. "Maybe Travis was onto something. Anyway, it's more than you can ask for working a grease pit."

JD turned to me angrily. "Hell, you don't even know what you're trying to sell me on. Give me some wings and I'm flyin' in a second. But why the hell should I fly for you?"

"Well, Alicea saved your life . . . "

"And I saved hers back in that warehouse. We're square."

I shrugged my shoulders. Why go back to the life? Why get into the life in the first place? "Aren't you interested in bringing down some of the sons-of-bitches that turned this town into a war zone?"

"Whatever, Randy. One set of mad heads for another. Snowball Travis with that shit."

I was through fooling around. "You tell me, then, JD. What's the problem? Is it because Alicea rode herd on you? Was she supposed to let you run with some other posse and get McCoy's attention?"

He turned away from me. "Randy, you talk to me like I'm three years old."

"What's that mean?"

"It means that you act like I'm stupid and I got know idea what's going on. Ever since the beginning: you could snow Travis, you could even snow Alicea. But you couldn't snow me, Randy. I'm 24 years old, I know how shit goes down. I know what you're after in all of this. I understand your motivation."

I folded my arms. "You think I'm just after a story."

He covered his eyes. "No."

"Enlighten me, then."

He took a deep breath. "A guy gets to be your age and he starts looking for meaning. Everything has meaning: when it rains, when it's cold, when it's not cold. It all has meaning, so you go looking for it. At your age, you think you should be able to find the answers to everything, and you get ticked off when you can't.

"You came down here and waived your cameras in our face because you were looking for answers. Hell, I know the network wanted a story, but you could have phoned that in. You chased us because you wanted to know what made us get into the superhero life, why we kept at it.

"You kept watching us till we got caught, but you didn't find the answer. You hooked up with Alicea, but you didn't find all the answers. Now, you got even more questions. Armorlitia? Valley Green? It's bullshit, Randy. It's not your fight."

He approached me now, the skinny little rail resting a bony hand on my shoulder. "You're filling Alicea with this crap - and we both know that she falls for a line of crap - and you're setting up a suicide run, all because you haven't found all the answers yet. And I ain't gonna risk my life for somebody who ain't got the grace to say it, or who ain't got the sense to figure it out for himself."

I looked down at his hand, and he removed it with a disinterested shrug. I have a low tolerance for street philosophy, but I took what he said to heart. Sure, this wasn't my fight, and curiosity might have gotten the better of my judgement. Maybe with all the teenage corpses I saw on the superhero beat, I wanted to see this story through to a conclusion that satisfied me, not to it's natural end.

But he told me nothing I hadn't told myself in the middle of the night. JD wasn't around to see them toy with Alicea's life and my livelihood. I could've explained it to him, but he had shut me off. He just leaned against that dumpster, trying to be nonchalant, when I knew he was shaken up by seeing Alicea again, shaken by the though of flying and living the life again. The nonchalant punk routine wasn't working; I wasn't snowed.

"Before that speech, I had forgot what it was like to be 20 and know everything in the world. Thanks for the reminder."

He scowled at me.

"I remember the feeling: 50 bucks in your pocket, grease under your fingernails, and you feel like a man. It doesn't matter if nothing's going on in your life: go out, get laid, get drunk, start over tomorrow."

"Don't think you can make me feel guilty. . ."

"Guilty about what? This is your life, buddy." I leaned close and whispered to him "And there's no way out. It'll be like this forever. Then, when you're 34 like me, you can look around for answers, like you said, but you'll be 10 times as fucked as I am." I leaned closer. "'Cause you never poked your neck out, JD. You'll think back on this, and the memory will be almost buried under a thousand identical days."

He just shook his head. I couldn't tell if anything was sinking in.

"We roll in three days, with or without you," I said, handing him my portable code. "Let us know."

He took my card, feigned like he was crumbling it up, but made sure it found his way into his pocket. "I'm going back to work," he said, almost in a daze, as if he was to busy dreaming of flying to walk and talk. He stumbled back into the parlor, ignoring me as he passed.

I wasn't certain, but I thought I had recruited him back into the life. God help me.


Seven hundred and eight out of the seven hundred and nine patients at the Morristown State Rehabilitation Center reported for breakfast that morning. Security wasted only sixty seconds before contacting the missing inmate. They called his room, but received no response.

Just three days before, the patient had received visitors. Visitation rights for this patient had been prohibited by the administrator herself, but these guests gained access.

A second call was made, and this time there was a response. The inmate's voice was faint. "I'm not feeling well," he said. "I think I have a virus."

A moderator stayed on the line with the patient. Following protocol, three security assistants were dispatched to his dormitory.

There were two visitors: a guy around 35 and a pretty girl in her early 20's. She had all the answers: she knew the names of all the supervisors, especially the ones who ask for special favors and circumvent the rules. She claimed to have gotten special permission. It all made sense.

The assistants activated the video surveillance monitors inside the room. The place was a mess, but the inmate was there, sprawled across the bed, his head on the telephone console.

The monitor spoke talking to the inmate. "Why didn't you report to the infirmary?"

"I can't get it together. I'm really messed up."

The girl even convinced the guard to leave them alone with the patient. He could leave the audio on, but Luther, the weekend supervisor, was asking for one of those special favors. Luther did that all the time. He was always up for a bribe, arranging for the kids to get cigarettes, liquor, even conjugal visits.

And nobody crossed Luther. The girl seemed to know that.

The monitor had worked at Morristown long enough to be distrustful of the situation. "There's a team in place, Hood. They'll have a look at you and get you to the infirm."

"Not a good idea," he replied. "I got sick all over the place. There's blood in it. That or taco sauce."

The monitor rolled his eyes. "Security team: verify."

One of the assistants reported back. "It looks like hell in there. It looks like the kid threw up."

Protocol had to be followed. "Everybody in their zero contact suits before they go in."

The guards monitored the audio, just in case. How the visitors had been in contact with a mutual friend, who was doing well, and was looking forward to going back to his old job. Then, silence. A good minute of it. No whispers, just a shuffling of feet and bodies. Conjugal visit, the guard thought.

It took four minutes for the security team to retrieve safety gloves, boots, and goggles. All the while, the inmate pleaded his case with the monitor.

"They'll be serving breakfast at the infirmary, too. Just the sight of it will kill me."

"I don't care."

"Let me sleep in for a few hours. Then I'll go."

"Hood, if our counselors find booze in there, you'll lose privileges for six months."

The girl smiled at the guard as they left. She said that Luther would thank him personally, the next time they worked a shift together. The guard was glad it was over. Too many supervisors play fast and loose with the rules. Then they don't back up the guards when the doctors get mad. That girl and her sugar daddy could have smuggled anything in to the kid. Cigarettes and pot weren't a major problem, but there were other things . . .

"Open the door."

"I can't even stand up."

"Security, take it down."

On the monitor's orders, the assistants overrode the privacy lock from the outside. The door swung open, and the room inside looked nothing like the mess they saw on the monitors. It was immaculately clean, and empty. Its inhabitant had left a half-hour earlier, right after reverie. It was the only time an inmate could slip away in the confusion, the only time activities weren't strictly monitored by guards or cameras.

Wired into the phone and surveillance jacks was a small gray box. It wasn't just any Turing machine, but one capable of cutting edge artificial intelligence, replicating realistic audio and video interaction for its user.

One of the assistants calmly disconnected the Turing machine and spoke into the telephone console. "Boss," he said, "we have a breech."


The alarm sounded, and seven hundred and eight inmates pounded their forks into their platters with delight. The counselors and guards took action quickly, rounding up the entire population and moving them to a central courtyard.

Travis followed the directions Alicea related telepathically to him a few days earlier. The Turing machine bought him several minutes of travel time at low alert. Most of the guards were needed in the cafeteria for breakfast. Perimeter guards were easy to allude, few that they were.

When the alarm did sound, he took to the trees. Guards formed a line near the main gate and began sweeping backwards, cutting off the escapee's access to the parking lot and the easiest means of escape. It was a predictable tactic; that's why we had Travis move south, to where the facility's electric fences cut it off from the hillsides and undeveloped land beyond.

Those hillsides were perfect cover. Travis moved to the edge of the tree line. Security towers filled with armed guards prevented him from moving further. But the guards watched the no man's land near the fence, and they watched the hillsides for escape vehicles.

They didn't watch the skies.

We spent three days acclimating JD to a flight suit twenty times more advanced than his old one. Valley Green operatives spend three months practicing in the suits. We didn't have the luxury of time. Alicea was in jeopardy, and it took us two days to locate JD. Any more time and I might have come to my sense about this operation.

He flew low over the hill to keep from casting a long shadow. The guards spotted him too late. He breached the fence while they confirmed the order to fire. Travis appeared on a thick branch, and JD spotted him. The prisoner squared himself on the branch, bounced on it as if it were a diving board, and leapt into his rescuer's path. JD caught him on the rise, barely losing altitude in the powerful suit. Two clamps from his breastplate were fastened to Travis' waist. The prisoner hung in the air as JD ascended, avoiding the tardy fire of the guards.

They flew across the complex, with guards spotting them and scurrying to make reports or find weapons. No one would get a shot off. As they crossed the central courtyard, seven-hundred-and-eight incarcerated men cheered wildly at the sight of one of their own, suspended from the body of an unlikely steel bird of prey, flying an improbable route to freedom.


We stayed on the secondary roads, the county highways that led nowhere. They wouldn't be looking for a getaway vehicle yet- and wouldn't know what to look for- but there was no reason to take chances.

"You're going west," Alicea said as she spotted a road sign. "Atlantic City is southeast."

"Exactly. They expect us to go back to Atlantic City. We're gonna cool our heels in Philly for a day. Then we go back: me and you in the car, JD by air, and Travis on a tour bus out of some dive neighborhood."

Travis fidgeted in the back seat. "I guess I landed in the middle of the three ring circus," he said.

Alicea asked him what he meant.

"Nothing, except that I can't figure all this out, based on that little sketch outline you planted in my mind."

"Be grateful we got you out of there," I said. "We'll explain once we're safely out of Jersey."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll explain," he said sarcastically. "Alicea, be sure to explain why I had to drag you out kicking and screaming to do any crime fighting for the past year, then you meet this old fart in a top hat and three months later, you're acting like Bonnie and Clyde."

"It's more complicated than that," Alicea said.

He leaned forward, his head between us as I drove. "I've heard, honey. I've heard. Your new boyfriend told me all about the two of you. Did he tell you about that?"

Her eyes darted at me. I watched the road.

"I'm doing time in stir and the screws are lighting me up for trying to talk shop and my one thought is of you," he said. "Just to find out if you're okay. Maybe I professed my never-ending love for you, but that's the way guys get when they're locked away. Emotional. But you know how I feel and Randy knew how I felt, and he sat there watching me get dragged away, and he dropped this bomb on me. 'I'm banging your girlfriend, punk,' he says, not in so many words. He just slips it in there, like- what's that French word for when somebody shuts the other guy up in an argument?"

"A bon mot," Alicea said.

"Just like that," Travis said, shaking his head. "Like he was mocking me: you're going to jail, your life is over, and I'm making money off your ass with my TV show and screwing your girl on the side."

I gripped the steering wheel tightly. "I thought maybe you deserved to know the truth."

"Yeah, you did me a big favor. Then, I risked my ass to tell you what I knew. I don't know why. I guess I'm just stupid."

He looked at both of us for a reaction.

"So, how surprised am I to see you two show up with a plan to get me out?" he said. "Now, what's the story: am I the comic relief in this little adventure? I got it: Randy can't get it up any more, so now he has to watch . . ."

The brakes screeched; the car spun out. I climbed over the back seat to take a swing at a kid who could wipe up the floor with me. "I'll put your ass back in that place," I said.

"Bring it on, old man," he replied.

"Knock it off, both of you," Alicea shouted, her hands pressed against her temples. I got a hold of myself. The situation was crazier than anything I was used to; I was on edge, less in control than I would like to be. Travis deserved an explanation, after all, and the past few months had been harder on him than the rest of us. Travis calmed down as well, sensing Alicea's anger and the futility of arguing under the circumstances.

"Wanna keep driving?" he suggested.

I thought it was a good idea.


We spent the night in a flop down by the airport, the four of us sharing a room and a bottle of scotch. We were old souls: I felt comfortable with these kids, more comfortable than I should have. Once, they were supposed to be nothing more than documentary subjects: not friends, not lovers, and certainly not partners in crime. But everything was upside down, and as we roughed up the ice machines and watched the neon sign blink outside the window, they were the only people I trusted.

"You took a risk, pulling me out," Travis said, after we briefed him. We told him what Salome told me about the Armorlitia, about the attack on Alicea, about my suspicion that the network was somehow involved. He smiled with satisfaction when he heard us confirm his jailhouse rumor about a team of arsonists-for-hire.

"We need good people for what we have planned," Alicea said, sitting on the edge of the bed and putting her hands on Travis' shoulders. "And you're the best."

He reached up and held her hand. His expression was sad. "The best you can find, anyway," he said, tearing himself away from her.

"We need people we can trust, Travis," I said. "People loyal to Alicea and each other and no one else."

He slumped in a chair with the bottle. It had been a long time between drinks for him. "I guess I'm in. What choice do I have?"

It was ironic. After years of leading her around, pushing her buttons, pressuring her to his will, the tables had turned, and now Alicea held the cards.

"Did you hear anything else about Dennis Zane in rehab?"

He drank and felt his muscles. "I feel weak," he said.

"You look fine," Alicea said.

"But I feel weak. It's been months without a dose. I don't know what good I'll be."

"Don't worry about it," I said. "You haven't lost any muscle."

"Don't tell me that. I can feel it. Monkey-boy has a new flight suit, Alicea can get into and out of heads without breaking a sweat. All of a sudden, I'm a 200-lb. weakling."

He took another drink.

"Why am I 'Monkey Boy' all of a sudden?" JD asked, and we all laughed, even Travis.

"You asked what I heard in stir," he said, finally returning to my question. "Not much. There were a lot of small-town guys in there, guys who liked to go head-to-head with the local Armorlitia. Well, no one called it the Armorlitia. Anyway, whenever they got close, McCoy came and shipped them away. Some of these guys never had a record before, never a scrape with the local cops, and sure as hell never saw McCoys flying around Podunk or Bumblefuck. Sure enough, they get close to the militia, and old man McCoy appears."

"And the local militia doesn't get touched," I said.

"Sounds like the McCoy's work for the Armorlitia," Alicea said.

"It's probably not that simple," I replied. "The way things are set up now, the McCoy's don't work against the Armorlitia, which in a way is like working for them, but I don't think their out doing favors for militia chapters."

"Then what is going on?" Alicea asked.

"That's why we're here," I said. "There something in this for everyone. Alicea, this will get the hounds off your back. Travis, this is your chance to a hero, if you still want it."

Travis was compulsively flexing and rubbing his muscles. He glared up at me, squeezing his bicep tightly and slamming the bottle into the nightstand, nearly breaking it. "I still want it," he said, his voice full of resolve. "More than ever."

I was glad to see the fire in his eye. "For me, this is the story of the century. More importantly, I'll expose the truth and find out who's been duping me. And for JD . . . well,"

JD flashed that gap-toothed smile. "Hell, Randy, I'm just here for kicks."

"It's settled then," I said. "We're a team. We're gonna expose the Armorlitia."

"We're not a team yet," Travis said. We all turned to him "We're short a member. Or has everybody forgotten my sister?"

That announcement didn't sit well with Alicea. "We didn't forget Julianna," she said. "We thought better about bringing her along."

"I don't know exactly how this is going to work, but we're going to need firepower," Travis said. "Julianna was our firepower."

"I got firepower now, Trav," JD said. "The new suit can blow the wheels off a fucking tank."

Alicea stared at Travis in disgust. "Julianna wasn't just firepower, she's a human being. Sometimes you forget that."

Travis pointed his finger at her. "Don't say that. Don't ever accuse me of that. I was taking care of her when you were cutting classes to bang frat boys and run up your dad's charge cards."

"You bastard," she hissed.

JD rolled his eyes. "Well, ain't this old times."

"And talk about forgetting her," Travis continued, "Where is she now? Did you think to rescue her?"

"We thought to get you," she said. "Isn't that enough?"

"Not if you're gonna turn around and accuse me of not caring about my sister."

Alicea tugged on the frayed ends of her hair. "Julianna has a good home," she said.

Travis smirked. "Yeah, that's what they said about Morristown. A good place for kids: with trees and flowers and classes, not to mention instructors who get their fascist rocks off by putting you in your place."

"This is different," Alicea said. "Randy was there."

"Yeah? What's the word?"

I swirled the ice in my scotch. "She has decent foster parents, a bit gullible, but good-hearted. She got into a scrape of trouble while I was there, but she's made some friends. Alicea and I agreed that she was better off there."

Travis thought for a minute, taking in what I told him. "It wasn't your fucking decision," he said, storming out of the room.

Alicea turned to me. "Do you think he'll find her? Even if he does, can he get transportation?"

"I'm not putting it past him," I said, and I ran to the car to program my floater.


Julianna attended one of those shiny new high schools in the wealthy suburbs. The marble and brick building basked in the April sunshine; all the girls showed off their fresh new spring togs. Julianna was one of them, bouncing down the steps in a baggy polo shirt and a tight little knee skirt. The burns and other wounds on her legs were almost totally healed. She was flanked by Dylan and Danielle, the kids from the documentary who took care of her when she got drunk. They were deep in conversation; she almost walked right by her brother leaning on a scooter in the parking lot. Travis looked like hell, like you would expect a guy to look after ripping the lock off a chopper and driving around North Jersey all night trying to find a street address. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. He smiled warmly.

"It's good to see you," he said.

Dylan stepped forward. The gawky, long haired kid eyed Travis suspiciously. "Who are you?" he demanded.

Travis' voice was even. "I'm her brother."

Dylan cocked his head. "Aren't you supposed to be in jail?"

"Depends on who you believe."

Dylan stepped back from Travis, pointing a wary finger at him. "I know you aren't supposed to be here," he said. "I'll call the office and get you escorted off campus."

"Don't do that," Julianna said.

Dylan turned to her. "Are you sure it's OK?"

She put a hand on his chest to calm him. "It's fine," she said, smiling up at him. "I'll catch up with you."

Dylan glanced with displeasure at Travis one last time, then retreated with Danielle to some picnic benches.

Julianna joined her brother. They strolled casually across the parking lot. "Is he your boyfriend?" Travis asked.

He shrugged her shoulders. "I guess. We don't really do anything. He's just a sweet guy who looks after me."

Travis chuckled. "That used to be my job."

She looked away. "I know."

They walked in silence for a moment, slipping into a stand of trees beyond the school grounds.

"Aren't you going to ask me how I got out of rehab?"

She turned back to him. "Does it matter?"

"Maybe. I had help. JD, Alicea, even Randy."

She cocked her head. "Really?"

"Yeah. It was like old times. Everybody misses you."

She turned to face the school. Through the trees, she could see kids walking down the steps from the main exit.

Travis went on. "So, what's new with you?"

She turned back, showing some excitement. "I'm going to college," she said.

Travis was caught off guard. "Really," he said.

"Yeah. Community college. My foster family is gonna pay for it, if my grades stay up. I have a B-average."

He wasn't enthusiastic. "Great," he said.

"Make sure you tell Alicea. I think she would be proud of me."

Travis nodded. His sister could tell that he was less than inspired by the news.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" He asked. "I mean, college, foster parents . . ."

She interrupted him. "I don't know," she snapped. "But it's all I have left."

"No it's not," he said. "You can come back to Atlantic City. We're involved in some big shit. Alicea is in trouble, otherwise she and Randy would have let me cool my heels forever. The team is gonna make a strike against some real 90-caliber badasses, and we could use old Velvet Glove treatment."

She slumped against the trunk of a tree as he spoke. "I don't have a gauntlet anymore."

He crouched beside her. "We can get you a new one," he told her, although he knew he couldn't. "A better, safer one."

She put her face in her hands. "One last big strike . . . that's what got me here in the first place."

"I know. But we were on the right track then, and we're wiser now. You can't tell me you miss the life. Not a little bit."

She pulled back her hair. "When I first got here, I missed it. I missed you. Alicea. The Devlins took me in, and they had a rule for everything. There was a time to be home, a time to eat dinner, a time to get up, even on a Saturday morning. I hated it. I partied a lot, got into some trouble that could have put me into a rehab, like the one you were in. I dreamed of catching a ride back to Atlantic City, even just to go to Down Under and drink all night.

"Then one day," she continued, "I realized that the rules didn't bother me so much. I had nothing to be afraid of; there was no uncertainty. Maybe every day isn't an adventure, but I think I had plenty of days of adventure when I lived with you."

"So you won't help us?" Travis asked impatiently.

Julianna's eyes were sorrowful as she looked up at her brother. "Don't make me choose. I miss you all, but things are getting better here. If I leave with you, I throw all this away forever."

Travis shook his head and turned away.

"Does Alicea know you're here? Does she know that you were coming to get me?"

"Yeah. But I'd be lying if I said she was thrilled with the idea." He turned to his sister. "Boy, I could never compete with Alicea when it came to getting your respect."

She placed her palm on her brother's cheek. "You never had to," she said. "You were there for me when I was little. When dad died, when mom died, when things got crazy with Aunt Emma, you were always my hero."

"But I'm not anymore."

She looked down. "Maybe not in the same way," she said. "But if you tell me that you need me, that the team needs me, and that I'll have a better life with you than I have here, then I'll go back. That's all it takes."

There was a long silence. Travis watched Dylan and Danielle spy on them from a safe distance. He watched kids pass, carefree young people gossiping and sneaking cigarettes and heading back to safe homes with porches and two car garages. He looked at his sister, healthier and more robust than he had ever seen her, without the cloud of despair that once followed her.

"I can't say that," he said. He was upset, but he gave her a brave smile. "We'll find a way to work without you. You keep up what you're doing here: go to the prom. Go to college."

She hugged him. "Thank you" she whispered.

He fought back tears as he approached the scooter, sucking it up when he saw me there. "What's the matter, Randy? Don't trust me?"

I smiled. "Of course I do. Just watching your back."

"Were you listening in?"

I twisted a dial on my remote control. My floater obediently drifted overhead. "Eye in the sky," I said.

"Figures." He took a health bar from the scooter's saddlebag and tore into it. "You know, that's the most she's had to say to me in two years."

"It sounds like she's coming out of her shell."

Travis munched on his snack, thinking. "I guess she never really felt comfortable talking to me. I had been making all the decisions for her for so long, I never stopped to ask her what she wanted."

I leaned back against the hood of my car. "She's a young woman now. She can make her on decisions."

"Yeah, she's the same age now as I was when I started taking care of her." He finished his health bar and reached for another. "They really beat me up about her in those therapy sessions. They kept telling me: it's not what you did to yourself, it's what you did to your sister. I tried to tell them my point of view: I was protecting her, giving her an opportunity to be part of something."

"You feel differently now?"

He thought for a moment. "Maybe. I regret not giving her a normal life. But then, a normal life would be no good for me. You can relate, can't you?"

I told him that I could.

"Well now I can give it back to her," he said, taking one last look at the idyllic little suburban campus. "Let's go. We have work to do."


Three days in roadhouse hotels in Philly and the woods of South Jersey, hiding from the law and plotting a coyote-crazy scheme to take on the world: if I was 22, I might have seen it all as one great big adventure. But I was feeling my age. Watching the kids drink until dawn, power nap, then wake up fresh reminded me how old I was.

"You're only as old as you feel," Alicea reminded me as we ran along a county two-lane near the last flop we rented before d-day. Well, she ran. I half-jogged, half-stumbled, with my heart ready to jump out my chest. At least I could see her; JD was a mile up the road, and Travis was probably in Wisconsin or someplace.

"If I have to do any running," I told her, "we're all dead. Pretend you never met me."

She turned, jogging backwards and pushing hair back from her eyes. "C'mon Randy. None of us are in fightin' shape. And I know you have more stamina than this, when you're properly motivated."

She stopped running and beckoned me with a finger. "Come get a kiss," she said.

I took the deepest breath I could, gathered up my legs and jogged to her. She waited until I was a few steps away before she began jogging backwards, first slowly, then matching my embarrassing forward velocity.

"Cheap trick," I panted, "dangling a carrot in front of me."

"You must be hallucinating. Do I look like a carrot to you?" She was pumping her legs to stay ahead of me. I turned on what was left of the burners, and she squealed, turning to run into the woods. I scrambled after her and tackled her, both of us sliding into a pile of pine needles and giggling.

We could flirt like that when Travis wasn't around. Back in the claustrophobia of the hotel room, he would wear that hang-dog look if we got too close. The kid who trashed Shorty's a few months ago, the kid who could tear me in half, moped around us like he had no fight left.

"I did two miles in eight minutes, give or take," he said between sets of sit-ups.

"Not bad," Alicea said. We sat on opposite edges of the bed, watching Travis lift his shoulders to his knees again and again.

"Yeah, but I bet I can't lift shit."

"This won't be a lifting operation," I replied. We had spent the better part of two days mapping out a plan. "You need to get in, hook up some video, and get out."

"At most," Alicea added. "You may need to handle some security."

Travis stopped at the top of a rep. "Don't worry. I've been looking forward to 'handling' some people for a while."

Then JD returned with a bottle of booze, and Alicea and I encouraged the boys to drink. No sense staying up late, worrying about the operation.


We spoke in whispers.

"Who did you contact?" she asked.

"I have some connections on the maverick networks. When the feed comes in, they promised to go live. I talked to some local affiliates, but it'll be a big risk for them to do anything."

She nodded, bringing my drink to my lips for me. I sipped. "How many do you think will see it?" she asked.

I ran my hand along her bare thigh. It will be broadcast over the entire Atoll, assuming everything works. The guys I talked to have services in a couple million homes. How many are actually tuned in? These aren't the major networks. A few thousand might be watching, and if the video we provide isn't that great, they might tune out in the first few seconds."

She brushed back her hair. "So it's a long shot. We sneak video in there, we risk our lives, and there's a chance no one will see it because everyone has a short attention span."

I smiled. "Who's idea was this?"

"It couldn't have been mine," she said, sipping from my drink.

"It's not as bad as it sounds. I have one of Joe Bell's old campaign hacks ready to crank up what's left of his media machine when we blow the lid off. We'll generate some attention."

She nodded, pulling herself closer to me. On the other bed, JD rolled to his back and began to snore.

"Will we generate enough attention to get them off my back? To come out of hiding? To accomplish anything?"

I put my arm around her. "I have no idea, Alicea. I do know one thing: I'm glad we're doing this."

"Sure. You're glad to be an accomplice to a prison break. You're glad to be on the lam. You're glad to be in the middle of the Pine Barrens rather than your home in New York."

I tucked a finger under her chin. "No. I'm glad to be with you."

Those green eyes flashed at me.

"And I'm glad I'm making a stand. I'm happy that we're giving you a fighting chance, rather than sending you off to Valley Green or making you hide under a rock forever."

She nodded, and kissed my hand, and looked off into the dark of the room. We smelled of cheap scotch and spent cigarette smoke, and sweaty bodies. JD and Travis were sharing a bed, lying head-to-feet in a whiskey coma, JD snoring to wake the dead. Otherwise, the night was still, and the sky outside our window dark. Alicea meditated for a long time, lying cradled in my arms and just staring into the middle distance.

"Quarter for your thoughts," I said. "You're pretty far away."

She stirred. "Actually, I was right next door."

"Next door?"

"Yep." She propped herself up, leaning her frail body against my chest. "Room 14. These hotel walls are thin. Sound travels through. So do thoughts."

I asked her what was going on next door.

"There's a couple in there," she replied. "Married. Well, he is, anyway. Last call at that Tavern down at the crossroads was about an hour ago. They're both pretty drunk. Drunken brain waves broadcast better. It sounds like AM radio must have sounded."

"Does she know he's married?"

She sipped my drink again. "She knows what he is and he knows what she is. No secrets: not from each other, and sure as hell not from me." I watched her eyes flicker as she read. "She's disappointed by his body. She had an illusion of something more. He's not that impressed, either . . . guess who flashed through his mind when he closed his eyes."

"His wife?"

"Nice try. Nope. A girl in a little homecoming gown, vintage 20 years ago. Is that what goes through you mind when you see me naked?"

I blushed. "No."

She grinned. "I know. Now they're groping around, fumbling, really. We'll hear them soon."

She became quiet and waited. Sure enough, the telltale creaking of a cheap bed frame started, at first gently, then with gusto. The headboard rapped against the wall. Travis stirred briefly. Alicea winced.

"He's had too much to drink, Randy. He's half flaccid, and he's wondering what he's doing, why he isn't at home. And she's just embarrassed, trying to work up some enthusiasm. She's tired. She wants to be at home, by herself."

The creaking went on unabated. "Funny, that's not the story I'm hearing," I said.

"Trust me, Randy. They met at that honky-tonk, and she was feeling very old and unloved, and he was feeling very old and unappreciated. Coming here to fuck made perfect sense to them two hours ago. Now, they're trapped. They've gone too far, and they have to follow through."

I nodded, following her gaze out into the nothing. For a moment, I tried to hear what she heard. I strained my ears, as if I could will myself into hearing thoughts and reading minds. But all I heard was clanking box springs and rattling floorboards and JD sawing lumber and Alicea breathing.

"If only they both knew that they both wanted to turn back," I said.

She shook her head. "No. They hate what they're doing, but they would hate themselves even more if they turned back. It's too late to make anything good out this tawdry bullshit one-nighter. She knew that when she walked in the door of this sleaze dump. So they resigned themselves: throw themselves at it with everything they got, and hope the climax is worth what it took getting there."

Suddenly, the creaking stopped. The whole building seemed to settle. "Well, was it?"

Alicea pulled back her hair. "Not what I'm used too."

She turned to me, and I planted a soft kiss on her lips. We laid awake for a while. I didn't ask for any updates on the couple next door, and she didn't offer. We didn't plan obsessively, either, as we had for the past two nights. All the planning was done; what we needed was sleep, but it wouldn't come, not without boozing on JD's level, and this old timer doesn't bounce back like he used to. As I held Alicea, I envied the drunks snoring away on the next bed. They managed to drown their uncertainties for one night. But I couldn't. I couldn't figure out any more if I was helping Alicea or destroying her life, exposing the truth or making a fool out of myself. All I could do was throw myself at it with everything I have, and hope the climax is worth what it took getting there.

Chapter 5: This is My Show

Tensions were high as we rode the moving walkway out to the Atoll, and the holographic advertisements don't calm you down. Music and lights and chaos: at least they attract attention, so it's easy to get lost in the throng. Not that we looked suspicious. Travis and Alicea, dressed like a prep-school couple, rode a few yards ahead of me, and we didn't acknowledge each other. We passed through security without a hitch: none of us were carrying any recording equipment or electronics, save for a portable phone.

"Nervous?" Alicea asked as we walked the main thoroughfare. We were in the safety of the crowd now, where we could talk.

"Nothing to be nervous about," I replied with a game smile. "You?"

"Frosty," Travis mumbled.

"Then scramble," I said. "We'll talk when we're jacked in."

Alicea and Travis headed for the atrium bar. They had they easy part . . . for now. I had to retrieve the video equipment JD planted on the island at dawn.

It was too cold for sightseers on fisherman's jetty. The rock outcropping, extending 400 feet from the atoll, was buffeted by waves and wind. The few couples who braved the jetty in search of romantic peace and quiet lasted only a few seconds in the early spring chill.

"Wicked winds today," I said to the security guard as he held the door open for me, allowing the brisk wind into the shopping plaza. I picked my way along the guide rail, pretending to enjoy the vista view of the ocean and the distant mainland. I hadn't attracted the guard's attention, so I moved quickly to the end of the jetty.

A thin cord hung from the base of the railing, descending into the rocks and the ocean below. I tugged at the line, fighting undertow for a few seconds, until the sack at the other end emerged from the ocean. Quickly, but carefully, I brought it ashore.

The thick sponge padding of the sack was waterlogged. The catch weighed a ton, but it had done its job, protecting the airtight plastic within from the forces of the rocks and tide. I unsealed the plastic container and verified that the cargo was bone dry. The floater and minicam were safe. My lapel-sized micro-camera was also in good working condition, as were the video electronics I smuggled away from a friend at a network affiliate. And the pistol Salome provided was fully charged.

I plunged my micro and the gun into my breast pockets. With a tap of a remote switch, I activated a program on the floater, and it fought the wind back toward the plaza entrance. The rest of the cargo was thrown back into the deep. When I entered the Atoll, the floater whizzed through ahead of me, it's presence concealed by the stinging winds and a few words to distract the guard.

Once inside, I tucked the floater into a shopping bag and passed the atrium bar.

On my signal, Travis left his seat and followed a few paces behind me into a department store. With all the bars and all the public restrooms on the Atoll, department store restrooms were usually deserted. That was our destination.

Travis joined me in the lavatory stall. "Two guys in one stall," Travis said. "You know what they would think."

I fitted the micro up his sleeve and into his collar. "If they're thinking that, they won't think we're here to bother the Armorlitia." I up-linked digital images from the micro-cam into my remote control, checking the hookup. "Besides, 'they' shouldn't think anything if this goes without a hitch."

Travis watched as I tested the video interface. "It doesn't seem like anything's going on around here," he said. "Do we have the right week?"

I nodded. "All the action is in the conference center, according to Valley Green's intelligence." I inserted a network receiver into my ear, then spoke via remote. "Let's make sure the artillery is in place," I said. "Come in, Dangerbird."

JD was crystal clear over the connection. "I'm fucking cold, Old Timer." Having deposited the video equipment, JD spent the morning hiding beneath the doc and pylon system on the edge of the atoll. His perch was just a few feet above the waves, and the metal of the Valley Green flight suit had to be freezing.

"S'OK, D-bird," Travis piped up. "Old Fart and I are getting cozy in a bathroom stall together."

"Fucking precious," JD said.

"Silence until my mark," I said, severing the connection with JD. I handed Travis the extra video equipment. "You know what you're doing with this?" I asked.

He took the equipment and stashed it in a pocket. "You showed me."

I smiled. "Good. Now get out of here before I start liking this."


Travis found a little Irish bar near the conference center entrance and cooled his heels. Alicea left they atrium and caught up to me as I feigned window-shopping. So far, everything was clockwork.

"Nice pants," she whispered as I admired the wares at an upscale haberdashery.

"Everyone's in position."

"Will wonders never cease."

"You ready to read and run?"

We strolled toward the conference center. "I already have some of the information I need," she said. "There are lots of militia types hanging around."

I frowned. "Have we attracted attention?"

She shook her head. "They're just shopping and having lunch," she said. "This is like any old conference to them. They brought they're families and everything."

I nodded. They probably told their wives it was some boring sales conference. Meetings all day, honey, take the kids out shopping. I have high-yield CFCs and pulse cannons to buy.

"You didn't wear yourself out reading, did you?"

She smiled. "Plenty of gas in the tank." She brushed my hand, careful not to be too affectionate and attract attention.

We approached the conference center entrance. Like everything else on the atoll, it was grand and gilded and a little ridiculous. Greek columns and fountains, the whole bit, hiding a state-of-the-art building with tight security. Guards wearing red blazers checked everyone who entered, and each guard was wired with earphones. One breach, and the response would be instantaneous.

"Play along now Randy," Alicea said as we approached. "You're a New York cosa nostra type, let's call it an olive oil company. That'll explain that accent of yours. I'm your personal secretary, wink-wink."

"Sounds kinky."

"Be nice."

Using our fake personas and the information she pulled from the guard's mind, Alicea talked us past security. It took some doing, even with all of our advantages. He wanted to check the bag with the floater, but we bullied him with our Mafia-scented story. I was glad we weren't trying to explain Travis past the guards; even in a polo shirt he looks too much like hired muscle to explain away.

We were in the building. The main ballroom showed no indications of illegal activity, which was not surprising. The Armorlitia was confining activities to the higher-security areas on the fifth and sixth floors. I slipped into a bank of pay phones, Alicea took a place in line at the information desk, and faze two begun.

"We're clear," I whispered. "Time for action boys."


JD had located a security sensor on the outside of the conference center. It was perimeter security, designed to keep boats and recreational flight craft away from the building. We wanted a diversion, and we wanted that security sensor off line. On my mark, JD took care of both. He flew into position just beyond the sensor's range, smoked it, then took off for the mainland.

"Target destroyed," he said. "I'll monitor you. Otherwise, one-way silence." That was the last we were supposed to hear of him.

JD's assault had the desired effect. Security mobilized, concentrating their efforts on the area JD attacked on the far side of the center. Around me, managers were briefing guards and barking directions into their portables. I slipped into an elevator for the fourth floor. When I was certain there was no surveillance, I linked in to Travis' camera with my floater. Sure enough, he had taken advantage of the distraction perfectly, slipping between guards as they were receiving reports and being repositioned. The last line of guards tried to stop him, but he disappeared into a crowd in the main ballroom.

I concealed the floater, left the elevator at the fourth floor and followed a row of corridors through the conference center. For all the luxury of the façade and the lobby area, the place was utilitarian: endless rows of office spaces and meeting centers, small apartments, and cleaning stations. When I found a cleaning station door ajar, I slipped into the tiny closet.

Salome had provided a few helpful building specs. There were electrician's crawl spaces hidden in small panels along the baseboards of the janitor's closets. A little prying, and the entrance door gave way. I wiggled into the crawl space. There was barely enough room to work, and my remote monitor provided the only light available, but I was able to watch Travis and Alicea's progress as I prepared my minicam and floater for the flight of their lives.


Having evaded security, Travis joined Alicea in the lobby. While I hunkered down in my fourth floor crawl space, they headed for the basement. All this sneaking around would amount to nothing if we couldn't broadcast what I found. We couldn't run the risk of recording the evidence, only to have Wasserman bury the story. As best we could, we had to make sure that the story broke live.

When I was certain they were alone in the basement, I made contact. "How're we doing down there?" I asked. Travis, who was wired for sound, jumped out of his skin.

"I was fine before the heart attack you just gave me."

"The underground concourse shouldn't be heavily guarded," I said.

"We haven't seen much yet," Travis replied. "And we got the situation covered. Anybody Alicea can't talk her was past, I'll beat senseless."

That's precisely what they did. There was a skittish guard at the entrance to the center studio; he was on his guard after our little diversion. Travis needed to cut the circulation off to his brain before he reported the incident. All I saw was the back of his neck as Travis cradled it against his chest and squeezed. The kid would sleep soundly. The engineers at the video booth, on the other hand, bought Alicea's story about recording promos. Apparently, lots of conventioneers had gotten permission to use the recording booths, the few allowed on the island, while they were in town.

"I'll tell you something, Old Faithful, all this sneaking around ain't exactly my style," Travis said once they were safely inside the video booth.

It was no time for chatter. I was waiting for the signal that Travis had installed the broadcast software so I could release my floater. "What would you suggest, kid? Hitting this mob head on?"

"Maybe," he said as he worked. I saw him carefully wiring a broadcast interface into the video equipment. "Go in with guns blazing. Take a bunch of them out before we get taken out ourselves."

I could hear Alicea in the background. "Sorry we didn't plan a suicide mission for you."

"Yeah, you did," Travis said. "We don't have a chance of living through this. Had we gone in with our spurs set, at least there would be lots of witnesses. When they nail us for this, our bodies will just disappear into the night."

"Travis," I said, wearying of this line of talk. "If you didn't think we had a chance, why did you come along?"

"Beats jail," he said, completing his work. "OK, Randy, this is your show. Flip a switch, and you have a direct line to the affiliates, one to the network . . . and a bonus. I rigged you up to the advertising array by mistake. I think it's a direct override."

That gave me a laugh. The thought of patrons treated to the sight of the Armorlitia with its pants down on 40-foot high holographic monitors was a killer.

"It's finished then," I said. From then on, it was really my show. "Travis, sit tight and monitor things down there. Alicea, get the hell off the island."

She leaned over Travis' shoulder. "I'm staying."

I tried to argue. "Alicea . . ."

"I'm seeing this through to the end."

There wasn't much we could do to stop her. I shrugged my shoulders and released my floater.

I kept my floater as close to the ceiling as possible to avoid detection, but there was no one in the corridors to detect it. In fact, there was hardly any life at all on the fifth and sixth floors. There were some locked seminar rooms ("Proper care and maintenance of a battle suit?"), but no bustle in the hallway, no suspicious types at the exits. My camera climbed stairwells without incident.

"All's quiet down here, too," Travis whispered when I updated him. "We have our run of the control room."

I patiently controlled my floater from the safety and claustrophobia of the crawlspace, leading it down another unpromising hallway. "Maybe you can look up a directory or something, since you have so much free time."

Alicea cut in. "What do you need?"

"Tell me where there's a big exposition hall on these floors."

The radio went silent. I solemnly returned to my quest.

A few minutes later, Alicea's voice returned. "There are lots of lecture spaces, but only one hangar wide area. Try the mezzanine: they have 40,000 cubic feet under an atrium roof."

I did as she suggested, but the stairwell to the mezzanine was blocked by two red blazers. I almost lost my grip on the remote as I jerked the floater back down the stairwell. I parked the device in a far corner of the ceiling at the base of the stairs. My microphone detected life above: voices, footfalls, even piped-in music.

Now I just had to get the little camera through.

The corridor leading to the mezzanine stairs was relatively short: maybe 100 feet. I turned the camera to zoom in on the far end of the hallway. A ventilation duct sat high on the wall. It was a little wider than my floater. A tight fit, but workable.

I opened up the throttle on my little floating camera unit and let her rip, heading straight for the duct. The first strike only dented the grate, but it didn't knock me off line. A second assault and we were through. I switched the camera to limited-light setting, slowly picking my way through the ductworks.

This was ultimate claustrophobia: a guy in a crawlspace watching a camera crawl through ductwork. After a few dead ends, we floated up to mezzanine level, and the iris of my camera, concealed by the ventilation grates, opened up on the most unlikely trade show in the world.

There were overseas weapon manufacturers at booths, showing off deadly hardware to enthusiastic businessmen. Independent book publishers hawked their wares: "Beat the VPA: Twenty Airtight Defenses" and "Building Explosives Without Alerting the ATF." The patrons, nearly all of the male, looked like ordinary citizens, but they signed up for mailing lists updating servo-suit software and chatted up Third World snake-oil salesmen who promised rain forest herbs ten times stronger than Phinny Bar. Even individual armorlitias had their own booths, and all the grand dragons and Pooh-Bahs of different cells networked and mingled and enjoyed hot dogs and pretzels from the snack bar.

And I was getting all of it. I maneuvered the floater easily from grate to grate along the ceiling level. Everything was in clear view, from the weapons to the faces of the patrons. In my excitement, I almost forgot to flip the switch to begin broadcasting.

"Looks like paydirt," Travis said when I eventually went live.

I hooked a tiny headset into my ear, lowering the microphone to my mouth. Were the affiliates listening? There was a chance that some of them would. My floater automatically tagged submissions as mine, and the Jersey affiliates might simply go live out of habit. Even if they didn't, Travis' questionable wiring job gave me a captive audience in the Atoll entrance tunnel. It was show time.

"What you are witnessing," I said in the hushed, solemn tones of the outraged journalist, "is an affront to the American justice system, carried on in plain sight. Just two miles from a city virtually controlled by the McCoy Units, weapons manufacturers and distributors shamelessly buy and sell illegal weapons of mass destruction. Not in some seedy backwoods warehouse, mind you, but at a convention center with a festival atmosphere."

I continued in that vain for several minutes, zooming in on the hardware, explaining the significance of the event, and identifying some of the more famous figures in attendance. There were several New Jersey and New York state legislators on hand, a few high-profile CEOs, and the clincher:

"Also in the crowd along the far window is Donovan Baird, the former Atlantic City mayor currently running for the House seat vacated by Joe Bell. Congressman Bell, of course, left the House after a famous indiscretion that was videotaped here on the Atoll. Now, we see one of his political opponents in an even more compromising position. One can only speculate about the connection at this point, but it does appear that the Atoll has been used a stronghold for a united, national militia movement, and that by vacationing here, Bell put himself in a position where his enemies could easily strike him."

The broadcast continued, with me doing my best to blow the lid off the Armorlitia with every scrap of evidence at my disposal, but I could see by the activity on the floor that we had been spotted. A red blazer lit into the room waving his portable. They huddled with a few suits in the corner. I alerted the viewing audience that shutdown was immanent, then turned my attention to Travis and Alicea.

"Old Timer to Firck and Frack. Time to make like a tree."

"Gotcha," Travis said. "We're history. I'll break down."

"To hell with it," I said. "Just get Alicea out of there."

They would be going downstairs first, once they knew we were broadcasting. Travis and Alicea only had a few minutes. I watched the feed from Travis' collar-cam: they were out of the studio and negotiating the corridors. I turned my attention back to the floor, calmly narrating the scene, confident that the floater was out of sight.

On the floor, several management types flew into a panic. They knew someone was broadcasting a signal, but they couldn't determine its origin. It took a few seconds for some smart cookie to turn on a video screen and tune to the advertisement channel. Then they saw themselves, and could see what angle we were video taping from. One suit extended his arm, moving his finger until it pointed directly out of the video screen. The red blazer at his side calmly produced a CFC sidearm and blasted the air duct.

My floater was dead, and they were on to me.


I hoped to issue a quick warning to the troops, but I saw Travis duking it out with security on his micro-cam. A couple of red blazers had already hit the floor, but as he finished off a third I saw an armor-plated goon enter the hallway. It was hard to make out what was happening, with Travis and the camera spinning wildly, but I could hear energy pulses, so I assumed the worst. I cut off transmissions at the source, knowing that if they were thorough, they already had traced a line back to me. But I had to try to escape; I would be no help to anyone in the crawlspace.

I slowly pulled myself out of that coffin into the cleaning station, where it felt good just to stand up and stretch. But there was no time for yoga. I pulled my piece, listened carefully at the door, then sprung into the hallway when I felt confident that the coast was clear. The corridor was empty. I made for the corner, crouched, peered, then turned. Empty.

I broke into a sweat as I ran, breathing heavier than I should have from the exertion. C'mon Randy, I chastised myself, you're too old for a panic attack. But the guards were out there, the red blazers and the gray suits and the armor guys who attacked Travis, and they could be around any corner. There was no sense trying to play it cool: they knew who I was. If it came to a confrontation, it would be my pistol and my 35-year old body versus whatever tech and muscle they wanted to throw at me.

And yet, I was still on my feet.

A blazer turned a corner ahead of me, and I shot without thinking. He was blown off his feet by the shot before he could react. Immediately, I changed direction. All the guards were jacked in; shooting one took care of an immediate problem, but it only alerted others to my whereabouts.

I crashed through an emergency entrance, going upstairs instead of down. I figured that once they found me on the fourth floor, they might not look as hard on the fifth. Sure enough, I turned a corner to see goons rushing down the main stairs. There must have been 50 of them. I pressed myself against a wall and watched them descend. Maybe, I thought, I could slip out right behind them.

Then the door beside me opened. I whirled to fire, but the barrel of a rifle came down hard across my hands. I turned to run, but a security team raced down the emergency stairway I had just left. The rifle-bearer, an armor-plated kid about 25, pointed his weapon at me.

"Impressive, Mr. Stone. We were told we wouldn't need tech security with Black Street Herd out of business. For three amateurs, you really had us running."

Chapter 5: Serendipity

The thug who got the jump on me only wore a helmet and two forearm plates. Not much hardware; I might have tried to sweep him out at the legs, but I felt the cold steel of the microwave barrel of his wrist weapon against the back of my neck, and I knew he could make me a vegetable in seconds. So I endured his rough handling. I was led through the conference areas and tossed into one of the executive auditoriums. This was an observation deck for VIPs; the southern exposure opened directly out to the dome that kept the Atoll climate controlled. The spectacular view was tinted as I entered, the room going dark except for a few footlights.

The guard strapped me to a chair and left. I faced the primary viewing screen behind the auditorium stage. The straps were secure and tight; there was no way to free myself. The giant video screen flickered to life before me. I wasn't surprised at who I saw.

"Wasserman," I said.

There it was: a two-story high image of his smug visage, his lips pursed behind folded hands, staring down at me with condescending confidence. "Welcome to the executive ballroom, Randy," he said, his voice booming through the amphitheater. "Are you comfortable?"

I wished I could tug at the minicam sewn into my lapel to verify that it was still functioning. "You don't seem to be the type to incriminate himself like this," I said.

He smiled. "Self-incrimination?"

"I have hard evidence," I said. "Hard video evidence."

"Oh," he said, unfazed. "I don't see it that way. You have evidence of militia activity, certainly. That might be some small cause for concern. As for this conversation, I've ensured that it's just between you and me."

Two secondary screens flanking the main screen switched on. One showed Travis, unmasked and beaten, strapped to a chair and heavily guarded. Another showed Alicea slumped in more comfortable surroundings. She wasn't restrained, but she appeared unconscious.

My heart sank.

"We apprehended them at about the same time as you. We figured out your plan a few moments later. If you're curious, they did encounter some success. You broadcast about fourteen minutes of militia evidence to the entire atoll, and to some web stations that no one watches. A tiny, hollow victory, considering the risks."

Travis and Alicea disappeared. Now it was Wasserman, simulcast on all three screens. "Against that shred of evidence, and the hearsay of our current conversation, look at the evidence I have against you." He held up a manila envelope. It was probably just theatre, but he made his point. "A CFC pistol with your DNA code in the trigger lock, considerable evidence linking you to a known escapee from justice, evidence linking you to the lighthouse explosion. The list goes on and on. Should you decide to go public with this little encounter, you can only scratch me. I can ruin you."

"It's like I suspected," I said. "You control the Armorlitia."

He laughed sarcastically, his cackles filling the room. "Now you're just guessing. If I did run the Armorlitia, it would have a certain appealing simplicity. I only wish my life were so simple."

The two sub-screens again focused on Travis and Alicea. "Perhaps you will understand matters more thoroughly after you watch our interaction with Miss Mann," he said. "The whole story turns on her, after all. And you still haven't a clue as to why."


Alicea was still slumped on the couch. The room she was in looked like a standard corporate suite: decent furniture, some crummy seascape paintings, a one-way window. I could guess that there were some goons on the other side of the door, but Alicea wasn't going anywhere. Had they knocked her out? Possibly, but the strain of reading may have also pushed her to the limit.

The image of Alicea suddenly flooded all three screens; Wasserman wanted me to see what happened next. A man entered the room: a tall, gaunt corporate type, around 50, in a tweedy jacket and glasses. He approached Alicea, taking her frail little chin in his hand and lifting her face, as if he hoped to peer into her unconscious eyes.

I feared the worst. "Wasserman, if he lays a hand on her . . ."

Wasserman wasn't visible, but I knew he was listening. "Randy, your suspicions betray you," he said, his disembodied voice booming over the loudspeakers. "All this effort for some sexual rendezvous? Ridiculous. Please don't interrupt."

The tweedy guy tenderly brushed Alicea's cheek, then stepped away from her and sat, hands folded like a schoolboy, in a chair beside her. The contact drew her out of her funk. She stirred, stretched for a moment, then opened her eyes.

When she saw the man next to her, she jerked to life, dragging herself over to the far end of the couch and instinctively covering up with fear. Her hand brushed her shoulder, and she felt at a bruise on her tricep. A puncture wound. Her eyes grew wild.

"What the hell did you give me?"

"Calm down, Alicea," he replied, his voice soothing.

"No. Tell me what you did to me. Tell me what you're doing here."

"I'll explain everything, but first you have to calm down."

"I won't," she said. She tried to stand, but wobbled a bit. The tweedy gut leapt from his chair to help her, but she straightened herself out extending the palm of her hand to keep him at a distance. "I'll scream bloody murder," she said, walking over to the door and banging on it in utter futility.

"I expected this reaction," he said.

She turned to him. "I guess you did. Sending goons to kidnap me. Assaulting me and Travis in the basement."

"You were trespassing here."

"Is that how you justify attacking us? What did you do with Randy? Where's Travis? Let me the hell out of here, or so help me, I'll kill you!"

He sat there calmly, taking Alicea's hostility without response. "Considering what you've been through, I understand your anger. But I won't sit here being threatened. You may think Travis and Randy are your friends, but they've been using you. You should know better. I raised you better than that. And nobody kidnapped you, Alicea. This is the only way I could get a chance to talk to you. I didn't kidnap my own daughter."

Alicea and her father were still talking, but the audio faded and they dropped to the secondary screens so Wasserman's face could fill the main screen. He looked extra smug.

"Her father," I said absently, hoping he would fill in some of the details. I was through speculating.

"Yes, Oliver J. Mann," Wasserman said. "The long-suffering father of an estranged daughter who disappeared into the slums of New Jersey a few days after her college graduation. A man who's been emotionally shattered since his daughter fell under the influence of a brutal, if idealistic, young street hoodlum, who through charm and intimidation transformed her from a promising young lady into a petty criminal. A man who has never given up his search."

". . . And a high ranking Armorlitia leader," I concluded.

Wasserman nodded, perhaps despite himself. "Call him that if you will. He's a patriot, an advocate of the well-ordered militia. An enemy both of overbearing government control and the kind of anarchy favored by Mr. Hood and the Black Street Herd and a million other glorified gangs."

Wassermann fiddled with a knob, and sound returned from Alicea's suite. I could see them in the corner viewscreen: Alicea still standing but calmer, her father sitting motionlessly, doing his best to appear non-threatening. He was speaking.

"I ran out of options for contacting you. Your credit card would be in New York one day, Trenton the next. I had suspicions that you were in Atlantic City, but I was never able to pin down an address."

Alicea gritted her teeth. "We moved around. It's a dangerous line of work, and we didn't have money to burn."

"I'd send out operatives to find you: private investigators, employees," Oliver Mann continued. "But they would come up empty. And the few times they did find something: a stable web account, a place of employment, I was left with the same problem: how could I contact you?"

"You could have tried knocking on the door."

"And you would have welcomed me?"

Alicea's eyes turned downward. She brushed the hair away from her eyes.

"I didn't think so. And Travis? He would have greeted me with a sock in the mouth."

She turned back to him. "It looks like you knew some people who could take care of Travis if you needed to."

Mann looked hurt by that one. "Sweetheart, you probably have me pegged as some kind of Godfather after what you've seen around here. You have to realize that I hate violence. Abhor it. Much more so than Travis or that reporter. He's some role model: jeopardizing your life the way he did by bringing you here."

"But you were counting on that, weren't you?"

Mann bit his lip. "We assumed that by following Randy Stone, we would get to you. It was my only way of contacting you under circumstances that I could control."

"Why?" Alicea demanded. "Why did you need to contact me?"

Mann stood and approached her; Alicea was nearly in tears, but she made no effort to move away. "To apologize for the way things were. To tell you things I never could, and to offer you a chance for a new life."

He tossed a book on the sofa, inviting her to sit with it. It was a photo album, a hand-crafted keepsake. "Memories for you, Alicea Marie, if you're interested," he said, pacing with his hands behind his back to the window and the ocean view beyond.

She studied the book from a distance, looking ready to leap at it, but she remembered the bruise on her arm, rubbing it instinctively. Her eyes narrowed. "What did you do to me?" she again demanded. "You shot me with something. An anesthetic."

He appeared genuinely hurt. "No. Oh no sweetheart. I know it did knock you out. That was an expected side effect. . ."

"A side effect to what?"

"A side effect to the cure," he answered. "The cure for your condition."

She trembled. "A cure for telepathy?"

"No," Mann said, smiling now. "Far better: the cure for your headaches, the nausea, the blackouts. Think of it Alicea: about an hour ago, you were trying to read everyone in sight. Shouldn't the light be burning your eyes right now? Shouldn't you need a towel over your head? How do you feel?"

She paused, taking awhile to admit it to herself. "I feel good. Very good."

Mann sat on the couch and began flipping through the photo album he had offered his daughter a moment before. "The drug was synthesized based on all the information we had on you, going back to the prenatal . . . operation. Given more recent information, our doctors could develop a more efficient neuro-chemical, one that alleviates your symptoms without even making you drowsy, once you're used to it. Think about it: you would be able to read minds without pain. What an advantage you would have over everyone else."

Alicea was still looking off into the distance, trying to absorb everything: her father's presence, his message, the peculiar absence of pain. "But what am I supposed to use that advantage for? Am I supposed to become part of your . . . hell, what do I call it? Organization? Armorlitia? Or am I family - in the Mafia sense?"

Mann snapped, and it was the first time he raised his voice at her. "Alicea . . ." he shouted in response to her accusations. All the old roles played out then: she fell into place at the harsh sound of her father's voice, and he collected himself and continued coolly. "Alicea Marie, like many men of power, I have been forced to make many tough decisions, many ethical compromises. When the government began taking away elemental freedoms - the right to bear arms, the right to protect one's own family and neighborhood - I made one of those compromises. I won't apologize for that."

Alicea shook her head, looking down at him as he sat and thumbed through the photo book. "You were always arrogant. You always made your own rules."

"I know," he said. "Twenty-two years ago I made the most arrogant decision of my life." He held up a page to her. "See this little girl?"

She stared at the picture and flashed a wan smile.

"I never thought I would. Your mother miscarried twice before you. When she became pregnant with you, I scoured the world searching for a doctor who would guarantee that my daughter would not only be healthy, but would be extraordinary: a genius. Pulling you from your mother's womb and into an incubator seemed rational enough, considering the history. The drug therapy, at the time, seemed like a good idea."

They had never had this conversation before; I could tell by the way she gaped at him, shocked that he would reveal such personal details. He kept explaining himself. "So I defied nature, and you're the result: a child with such a precious gift, but who has suffered so much pain."

He looked up at her, his eyes guileless and open, stretching his hand along the couch and offering it to her. "I never understood until after you left. I've devoted all the time since then to developing this chemical, finding you, and looking for a chance to make amends. All I want from you is some time. Maybe later we'll talk about returning home, being a family again. But for now, sit with me, please. Not everything was sorrow and pain and loss when you were little, was it?" He pointed to the book. "Just sit with me for a while."

He was still looking up at her, his hand out in a plea for her to join him. I couldn't imagine what she was going through, but she couldn't refuse his simple request. She took his hand, turned the corner and joined him, leaving plenty of space between them on the couch.

He flipped pages, holding up photos for her. I couldn't see the photos, of course, but I could imagine what the portrayed from her expressions. Eight-year old Alicea Marie: the lonely, sickly girl who could do things no one else could understand. The awkward pre-teen with braces. The pretty, lanky teenager in a prom picture, holding a corsage and standing next to some non-threatening nebbish in front of a backdrop of balloons and glitter. Long before there was a reported named Randy Stone, or a thug named Travis Hood with a misguided need to be a hero, before the street fights and the flop houses and the drunken nights in Shorty Rock's Down Under, she had something simple, something normal. No siren's call from Valley Green or come-on from the Armorlitia, no crusader's zeal from Travis or appeal from me, could be nearly as seductive as the simple pleasures Oliver Mann now offered his daughter.

Wasserman's face was on all three screens again. "Now do you understand, Randy?"

I struggled vainly at my restraints. "Of course. You wanted Alicea the whole time. The whole documentary was just a set up to have me find her for her. I was just a pawn."

More of that damn arrogant laughter. "Again, Randy, the world would be a pleasantly simple place if it were organized the way you thought. That's the failure of today's media journalist. He sees only the story in front of him, breathing and vibrant in the frame of his camera. He can't look past it; it's too alive and breathtaking. He attributes causes to bogeymen and shadow conspiracies. There's only the reality in front of you and the darkness behind it. It's muddied, murky thinking.

"Randy, you weren't even a pawn. Pawns are played deliberately. You were more of a wildcard, a one-eyed jack who landed I my hands through serendipity."

He kept talking. "The documentary was just that: a story for television. One that would suit my organization's political ends. It was no more attached to anything more elaborate than was your breakfast this morning significant to the way your day turned out. It's foolish consistency, Randy: the need for a mind to create meaning where this is one, to formulate answers when there isn't even enough information to accurately speculate.

"By blessed coincidence, you found yourself in Atlantic City. This put you in position to further Mr. Mann's agenda, so I was immediately in touch with him. We discovered that you had made contact with Miss Mann, so we went out of our way to make sure that your band of merry men were apprehended."

I sat upright in my chair, straining at the straps. "You wanted Alicea busted, so her father could rescue her from jail."

"It would have been convenient. She would have been beholdant to her family, and possibly more agreeable to her father's proposal He was quite concerned that he would never be able to plead his case to her while she was under Travis' influence."

"You staged the bar fire and arranged for the team to be set up."

He nodded. "The bar fire served several agendas. Some of my associates wanted all vigilantes out of the way, preventing resistance to our trade activities. Increasing the volatility of the region had been on our secondary agenda for some time; the discovery of Miss Mann made it the time right to act. As for the set up, once actions were set in motion, there was no further motivation to coerce street criminals into selling each other out.

"Randy, none of this was supposed to involve you. I'm sorry it turned out the way it did."

"So what do you do now? Kill me?"

He smiled warmly and shook his head. "No. We've come too far for it to end like that."


The primary screen switched to Alicea. Wasserman's face now occupied the secondary screens. He must have been fond of all that theatrical switching. "She really is a beautiful young woman, Randy," he said. Alicea thumbed through a photo album, her legs folded beneath her on an overstuffed sofa. "It's hard not to be taken with her."

I heard a click from the transmitter in my minicam. "Not now," I said. "What are you going to do with me?"

He was looking at a monitor at his station. I watched him watch Alicea on the screen. He glanced up at me. "Use you," he said. "Use you to deploy the truth you see before you."

"I see you detaining three innocent people."

"No, you see me detaining yourself and a fellow fugitive from justice. As for Miss Mann, does she look visibly detained? Are there any guards? Do you notice that she hasn't tried the door, or looked for any other means of escape?"

Alicea did look calm, turning pages in that photo album. It wasn't right; whatever they shot into her system must have taken the fight out of her.

"I know you fancy yourself close to her, Randy, but you have no idea what pain she lived with daily. He father confided in me that as a child, she screamed through the night. She hallucinated. Years of therapy and considerable fortitude on her part allowed her to develop coping strategies. She compartmentalized the pain. Channeled it. Perhaps, sometimes she drowned it in liquor. But it never left her.

"The drug we administered is not some brainwashing sedative. It's the only thing that treats her condition at its source. That peaceful young woman is the person Alicea should be, the person she deserves to be. She's experiencing life without pain for perhaps the first time ever."

She stopped looking at the album and gazed out an unseen window. She had confided in me about the constant pain a few times. It wasn't something I could comprehend; she was so used to hiding it, it was easy to forget that it was there. But it was a din which kept her at the verge of tears, a threatening companion which tinged every aspect of her life. The part of me that loved her was happy to see the look of contentment on her face as she gazed out that window.

"What do I plan to do with you?" Wasserman said. "I plan to show you the proper end of this story. Travis is brought to justice. Alicea is reunited with her family. And you, the dutiful reporter, deliver the good news to America without any mention of the ugly episode we've had to endure. When you consider the circumstances, really, it's the only story you can tell."

The straps that secured me to my chair were stretching slightly. "One thing I couldn't figure out," I said, "was why the Armorlitia and FamVal would collude with each other. Then I realized how similar your agendas were."

"Indeed," Wasserman said, smiling. "There is nothing contradictory in trying to preserve the moral integrity of the American family while at the same time protecting the rights of citizens to arm and defend themselves. The key is to allow the right people to have access to the weapons. Overanxious kids and hoodlums need not apply."

"So you support the McCoy Units and let them do the dirty work of ridding the streets of superheroes."

He finished the thought. ". . . And into the power vacuum we slip: an organized, responsible militia. A powerful citizen army . . ."

"A racist, elitist faction."

He frowned. "A value judgement, Randy. FamVal doesn't meddle in the gory details of the Armorlitia's operation. We cooperate when it's mutually agreeable: my organization as the political muscle, the Armorlitia as a more . . . traditional power base. And, let's not forget, the McCoy Units as our convenient puppets. They base their strategies largely on popular opinion, and FamVal controls popular opinion."

"The McCoys arrest who you want arrested while ignoring the militia," I said.

"Yes, on the large scale. But that's a reality you will never be able to substantiate, and as I have already said, this conversation will go to the grave with you."

Alicea was still on the main screen. The door opened in her hotel room, and her father reappeared, carrying a platter with some sandwiches. He sat with her on the sofa, and they ate. They didn't seem comfortable together, but they were talking. I couldn't hear, though: Wasserman still commanded the audio.

He watched the video. "You were afraid I was going to kill you Randy. You would already be dead. I'm not a matinee villain who brags of his power then sets the stage for the hero's death-defying escape. Your death would raise too many questions, Randy, and despite your Moriarty-like impression of me, I don't command the resources to cover up a high profile murder.

"If all goes well in there," he said, pointing to his video monitor of Alicea and her father. "Alicea will accept her father's proposal that she return to live with the family. Not as an Armorlitia puppet, of course: she's too headstrong to accept that. Oliver Mann will be satisfied to have his daughter returned to him, at least for now. In return, Alicea gets the medication she always needed and an opportunity to abandon this gypsy lifestyle, which we both know has brought her nothing but grief.

"This is what you have been 'protecting' her from, Randy: the promise of home and good health. Don't you see how foolish you'll look if you set out to vilify us?"

I could slip may hand free if I wanted too, but I watched Alicea and her father talk quietly on the couch. There was no denying that Wasserman was the most devious kind of political insider. He played both sides against the middle, profiting both from the war on superhero weapons and the illicit trade in them. He manipulated public opinion in support of an elaborate agenda, restructuring power to suit the desires of his co-conspirators. The man had to be exposed.

But he had the drop on me. My network was in his pocket, as was evidence that could ruin my career and probably land me in jail. And my only real concern was for Alicea's safety. I could live with the likes of Wasserman spinning their webs on Capital Hill and Madison Avenue, especially if I could walk out of there a free man and get another chance to nail him in the future. But I came for Alicea. We risked our hides to get them off our backs and get the truth. But I had no idea we were fighting her family.

"What if she says no?" I asked.

"She goes free to live her marginal existence," Wasserman replied. "Mr. Hood goes to jail in any scenario. And if she does say no, that doesn't change your story: you still endangered her and encouraged her to break the law, all in the name of preventing her parents from contacting her and making a reasonable request that she live with them and seek treatment."

He leveled at me, squinting down at two screens at once. "But do you flatter yourself so much that you think she'll say no? What does her current life hold for her, besides you?"

I shook my head. Not much. Maybe some time with her family, taking the medication that could improve her life, was what she needed. Oh, they would try to coerce her in to joining the militia, but they weren't able to influence her when she was seventeen, and they would have no chance now.

"Let's listen in," Wasserman said, flicking a switch with returned the audio to Alicea's room


We cut into the middle of the conversation, with her father speaking. "We have a friend who's a full professor at Princeton," he said. "She would like to run a few studies: double blind tests, CAT-scans while your telepathy is in use, things like that. I know you probably think we want to use you as a lab rat. . ."

"No," she said, smiling slightly and tossing her hair back. "I know it's not that."

"Understanding your powers will help you control them better, which could help you feel better."

"I know. Frankly, I wouldn't mind having someone pay attention to me and my well being for a change."

He put his hand on her knee. "I know. You've had some tough relationships. I've seen it."

"Oh, yeah, the damn documentary," she said, pulling her leg away. She still wasn't comfortable with him.

"I was told that you weren't happy about it."

"Not at first," she said. She stood up, turning away. "When Randy first suggested it, I was terrified. Scared to death that the McCoys would come barreling into the apartment to take us away in the middle of the night."

Oliver nodded. "Yet you still did it."

She turned back to him. "In the state we were in, with Travis risking my life every day, I reached the point where I decided I would be better off in custody than where I was. So I swallowed my fear and signed on."

Oliver stood and faced his daughter. "You won't have to make decisions like that again. I know we've had our differences as a family, and I'm not promising much, but come live with your mother and I and I will promise that the nightmare is over."

He held out his arms, looking for a hug, but she turned away again. They kept talking, but my mind was stuck on what she said. She was terrified. Scared of the McCoy Units.

"Dad, I can't get past this lifestyle. I can't get past what you did to me."

"Honey, we will never forgive ourselves for making you go through with that operation. We were duped into it. This . . . organization has some real bastards in it, but it has good people, too."

That's what she told Travis: I would attract the McCoy Units, and she was scared.

"Good people, Alicea, like you and your friends, who try to make a difference. But we aren't reckless like that Travis. We proceed quietly and safely. That makes us look suspicious to some, but our cause is just."

But then I spoke to her, and she said that she didn't want to do the documentary because she was embarrassed by her lifestyle. She wasn't afraid of the McCoys; she just said that to try to persuade Travis.

"Look, this isn't about convincing you join or trying to get you to help us, honey. It's about getting you to come home."

She said she was scared on camera. She said she was embarrassed off camera. If you watched the footage I shot, it would appear that Alicea didn't want to do the story because she was scared.

I scanned the room that I saw on the giant screen. A bland hotel room: a sofa, some bad seashore artwork, a lamp, a ceiling fan circulating air.

"Right now, dad, I don't have many other options. I've tried to be independent, but I really don't have a life here anymore."

A ceiling fan was spinning away above them, but their hair didn't move. Alicea's long bangs, ready to flop over her eyes at the slightest breeze, didn't move with a fan almost directly above her.

"I can't pretend anymore," Alicea said. "I can't pretend that I'm satisfied. I don't really believe it myself anymore."

"A Turing machine," I whispered.

Wasserman's face shot up.

That's what I was watching: a simulation for my benefit. They had hours of footage of Alicea from which to construct the model, thanks to my efforts. They had the network's state-of-the-artificial intelligence at their disposal, the same AI that allowed us to construct a crude Turing model of Travis to spring him from rehab. But they made mistakes. They were sloppy with the rendering of the room. No one would notice that, but they also didn't count on the fact that Alicea told me things that I didn't share with the network, information which contradicted what they used to design the model.

Wasserman was showing me just what he wanted me to see: Alicea going peacefully into the night, removing my motivation to pursue him. He hoped I would slink away like a whipped dog. It was a great simulation: Alicea didn't cozy up to her father that quickly, and everything progressed naturally. But since it was a lie, it only meant one thing: Alicea wasn't willingly joining her family. They had her somewhere, and I had to find her.

Wasserman punched buttons on the console before him. I slipped my hand free and reached for my video transmitter. They had severed my link with Travis and the Atoll's communication network, but a click I heard earlier told me that they hadn't disconnect my link to JD's power suit. He must have seen me enter the auditorium; a quick glance of the view before they darkened the windows would reveal my location.

Guards streamed into the room. I tore away my restraints with my free hand. "Now!" I shouted.

JD had been listening for a signal. The guards drew a bead on me, but I ignored them and dove for a steel podium, the only real cover in the room.

Percussion missiles collided with the dome, buckling and shattering the normally unbreakable glass. Never one for subtlety, JD fired a second round. The podium collapsed on top of me, but I was only bruised. The video screens were toasted; splinters flew from chairs reduced to kindling by the blast. The guards were protected somewhat by their armor, but a few pulse blasts from JD took care of them.

He hovered over the carnage like a conquering hero in that Valley Green flight suit. I emerged from cover. "We have to find the others," I said.

His voice was amplified by his helmet. "I'm low on power. "I've been circling outside for 20 minutes, waiting for you to quit bullshitting with that guy."

"I had to wait for the right moment," I said. I didn't need him to know that until I realized the whole episode with Alicea and her father was a McCoy simulation, I was ready to put a stop to the whole affair.

"This suit says I'm running critically low. I can juice up somewhere on the island."

"No. Go back to the city and do it safely. They have too much control out here."

"Great. I'll keep in touch." He swiveled in mid air, then turned back. "Oh, Travis was able to give me a location before they nailed him. Do you wanna know where he was?"

I rolled my eyes. "Well, hell yeah!"

Chapter 6: A Little Epiphany

I needed a weapon. The guard JD took down was little help; all his firepower was integrated into his armor. I searched him and found a little CFC pistol in a hip compartment. The goon probably kept it there in case of power failure in the suit. It was a cap gun, but concealable and better than nothing.

JD and his concussion bombs had gotten everyone's attention. My floor was sealed off, but when I took the fire stairs down a level, I saw a none-too-orderly evacuation. All the Armorlitia big wigs, in suits and sweatshirts, armor and tourist gear, were bailing quickly, cutting each other off at the exits. Atoll security sirens kicked in; they were going to evacuate the island.

The chaos was perfect for me, gliding between militia thugs who were probably ignoring orders to hunt me down in the name of getting out of the line of fire. My hand never left that little pistol, but I never needed to draw it from beneath my sport coat. Everyone ignored me in their rush to escape. I had to use this time wisely; in a few moments, they would realize that the attack had ended, and Wasserman would be able to reorganize his forces.

According to JD, Travis was jumped while he and Alicea were on the 2nd floor. Most of the rooms on that floor were small conference rooms. That gibed with the image Wasserman showed me of Travis, assuming anything about that image was real. The background looked like a conference room. Unfortunately, there were about 25 of them on that floor, and all of their doors locked automatically after the last inhabitant left during a fire emergency. I was ready to blast every door looking for them.

Then I caught a lucky break. They were moving him. It must have taken them a few minutes to untie him, and there they were, a three-man escort surrounding Travis entering the corridor. It took about three shots for me to knock the first guy down. These guards were well armored, and the insulation absorbed much of the force from my little peashooter.

The other two powered up, but Travis was now ready for action. He took advantage of the confusion, dropping his shoulder and driving one of the guards onto the ground, where I could get a clean shot at him. This guy had a wrist-mounted pulse weapon. He fired at me, off-balance, as he hit the ground. I backed into a door frame for the slightest amount of cover, then ducked, turned, and gave him everything that little cricket had.

Travis was handcuffed directly to the third guard. I felt a little sorry for him. Travis used the cuffs to keep the guy close, so he couldn't aim his weapons. He grabbed the guard by the wrist, flipping him over his back. He twisted the goon's arm, digging a foot into the guy's neck. I could hear his arm cracking. "Power down," Travis ordered.

The guard capitulated, opening his power supply coupling and tearing the connections from his CFCs.

Travis closed his eyes, gathered his strength, clenched his fist. Adjusting his grip on the guard, he tugged the handcuffs taught, eased back, then jerked his arm suddenly. The guard screamed, but he wasn't seriously hurt. The chain in the cuffs snapped, and Travis examined his free hand with satisfaction.

"Still got it," he said.

"You know, one of these guys has to have the key," I said. He smiled. I knew he had a lot to prove to himself.

It was only then that I noticed how beaten up he was. His cheeks and forehead were bruised, his eyes were blackened. These weren't battle injuries; he had been roughed up while he was captive.

"I must look like shit," he said.

"Black and blue are your colors. We need to find Alicea."

"That's why went easy on this guy," Travis said, releasing his grip on the third guard. "He was calling the shots when we got attacked."

Travis hoisted the helpless guard to his feet, backing him against the wall. He leaned over the armored thug, resting a meaty arm on the wall. I kept my pistol trained on him. Travis played it cool.

"Wanna take your helmet off?" he asked

There was along pause. The guard's voice was muffled without an amplifier. "No," he said.

"Well, it's not your decision. I could crack your shell like a walnut right now, then maybe take my frustration out on what I find inside. Do you want that?"

The guard shook his head.

"Then you can tell me where Alicea is. So help me, if you did to her what you did to me . . ."

"No," the guard said. "I would never do that."

"What the hell does that mean? Who are you?"

It dawned on me just as it dawned on Travis. He ripped off the guard's helmet. It was a man in his mid-forties, professional looking, balding. A nebbish, one I had seen just a few moments ago.

"Oliver Mann," I said. "A little old to be running around in battle suits."

He turned to me, as if looking for forgiveness. "This situation was too important to trust to the younger guys. They're sloppy, and I don't trust them with her."

"Alicea's father," Travis said. "You're the bastard who played games with her brain when she should have been inside her mom's belly."

"And you're the bastard who convinced her to leave home and live on the streets," he snapped back.

Travis pounded his own chest with anger. "I was doing it for a just cause."

"So was I. We're both vigilantes. We both live outside the law. Don't get self-righteous with me."

I kept my gun trained at him. "The difference, Mann, is that you captured your own daughter and held her against her will. You even had Wasserman cook up a Turing simulation to convince me that she was leaving with you. What really happened?"

Mann was sweating. Fear and guilt brought the truth to the surface. "I took her to the room down the hall. I told the boys they could take cheap shots at Travis. I wanted you to suffer for taking my daughter away from me.

"I tried to talk to Alicea. I had a drug that would relieve the pain she lives with, but she read my mind and smashed the vial before I could even show it to her. She was so hostile . . . so unreasonable."

"Mann," I said, drawing closer and holding the gun a little higher. "Oliver, tell us where she is."

He pulled back at the sight of the gun. "I had to get her away from here. She was too close to you: both of you. I sent her to be taken off the island. I figured that after a few days away from everything, she might be more reasonable."

"So you dragged her away in chains?" Travis said. He was ready to pop.

"How?" I said. "Even in this chaos, you can't sneak somebody past Atoll security in handcuffs."

Mann slumped, lowering his eyes. "I had her chloroformed, and taken out to the cargo docks discreetly."

"You knocked her out." Travis was seething. "Do you know. . ." he punctuated his words with fists to Mann's skull, " . . . what it feels like . . . to be knocked out?"

Travis tossed the unconscious man to the floor. "He does now," I said.

Travis was cursing and panting. He crouched over Mann to inflict further punishment. "That won't help us find Alicea," I said. "We have to get to the rear docks. They're probably slipping her in to a weapon transfer."

He collected himself. "Then we have ground to cover. JD could provide some aerial recon."

I explained JD's situation: refueling back at the city. "We just have to split up and keep searching till we find her. Hopefully, she's come to by now."

A service elevator flew open, and two goons stepped out. These guys weren't escaping, they were after us. Wasserman had regained control of the situation, and we were his prime targets. I got a few shots off, then let Travis move in and do the heavy lifting. These guys weren't prepared for us, but the next bunch would be. We would have to fight for everything from here out.


The labyrinth of wooden crates took up one of the vast cargo decks behind the Atoll almost entirely: almost three acres of boxes, stacked ten feet high. The helicopter had a clean shot at me but didn't fire; I heard the distinctive clunk of boots on the wooden dock as militia forces fanned out in search of Travis and I, but no weapons fire. I kept my pistol raised, slipping quietly through the maze, wondering why they hadn't already taken me down.

I heard a voice echoing in my mind. "Randy?" it said.

I almost spoke aloud, but realized that Alicea could hear my thoughts. "I hear you," I said.

"Good," she said. Her voice was ghost-like when it was heard by the mind and not the ears. "I thought I knew you well enough to project my thoughts to you."

She had to be close by. "Where are you?" I asked.

"I am in a crate. The rest are filled with weapons, going to Armorlitia cells around the country."

"What about you?"

"My father is involved. He tried to talk me into joining. It didn't work. Now, I'm just another weapon to be snuck out of here. My guess is that they plan to do some research on duplicating my condition."

"We met your father. He and Travis reached a little epiphany, which ended when your father hit the ground."

"Yes, I know he loves me in some warped selfish way." I assumed she meant her father, not Travis, but it wasn't clear, even though she spoke directly into my mind.

There was movement at the far end of the corridor of crates. I dove for cover, peeking around to see an enforcer in servo-armor pass out of sight.

Alicea was monitoring my progress. "There are eight of them," she said. "Mostly wearing servo-armor or cutting weapons."

"Of course. Blasters only run the risk of turning this place into an inferno."

I looked down at my little peashooter pistol. I wasn't sure it could damage top-shelf armor in the first place; with no margin for error, it was essentially useless.

"You better let Travis concentrate on the bad guys," Alicea said, although we both knew that eight-on-one weren't good odds. "You can get me out of here."

"With pleasure. But how can I find you? It's not like I can follow the sound of your voice."

"You can, in a way," she said. "The projection of thoughts becomes clearer as you get closer. You start moving, and I'll tell you whether you're getting warm."

The corridor was free of traffic. Swiftly and silently, I walked forward. "Colder," she said, and I reversed direction.

She navigated my travel through several rows of crates like we were playing a deadly game of Marco Polo, with me scouting each new route for hostiles before moving. I was careful, but conditions were tight. The servo-armor junkie was on top of me before either of us could react.

"Shit," we both said, and he took a clumsy swing with an armored fist. I leapt backward to avoid it. I didn't dare shoot; if he caught my arm in the act of shooting, I could ignite whatever dangerous goodies were in the nearest crate.

He swung again and again, wild, roundhouse punches: the kid was not a pro with the equipment. I just danced backwards like a boxer avoiding punishment, knowing that a direct hit from one of those metal fists could put me out of commission for good.

Finally, the passageway through the crates widened a foot or two; the bolts that anchored the planks to the mooring were visible at our feet. My attacker followed me into the open space. Two quick pistol shots at his feet shattered the wooden planks below him. He tried to move away but was too slow. He fell through the dock into the icy water below. I looked down to see him clinging to the anchorage. The armor was too heavy for him to climb out or swim away, but he was in little danger of drowning.

"Randy," Alicea said in my mind, "that guy set off a proximity alarm. They know where you are."

Like I didn't have enough trouble. "How close am I to you?"

"Warmer but not red hot."

I ran now, leaping over the hole I had just created, following her directions. I could hear thugs closing in on me from all sides.

Another servo-warrior turned the corner. I instinctively backtracked, almost into the arms of another goon. This other one was equipped with a hodge-podge of battle tech, most of it of the slice-and-dice variety. Razor-tipped claws with servo-grips. Propeller blades on his forearms. Not a practical setup, but deadly: the kind of gear only the most vicious punks assemble.

He hacked and slashed his way toward me, his partner sealing off my means of escape. Like my last attacker, this kid was no pro: his whirling blades struck wildly at the crates to either side of us. One errant thrust tore the front from a crate above my head. With the thug bearing down on me, I hoisted myself up to get a look inside.

"Whoa," I said, "hot potatoes." I tossed two of the low yield CFCs in the crate to each of my attackers. They did what they had to do to stay alive: they grabbed the fragile capacitors, Mr. Slice-n-Dice shutting down his weapons rather than risk puncturing them. Still hanging from the open crate, I kicked at one of the propeller blades, breaking it from its motor. With one motion, I dropped to the ground, grabbed the sharp implement, and thrust it into my other attacker's servo armor. The armor shorted out; I pulled my hand away before it got fried. The shock did a number on the kid, who went and fell to the dock limp as bolts of current ravaged his suit.

I turned to the slasher, brandishing my pistol wildly. "Don't fuck with me," I said. "I'll blast you and those CFCs, blow this whole dock away."

The thug lunged forward, head-first, falling to the ground at my feet. Travis crouched behind him, having just executed a flying drop kick to the back of his neck. "You wouldn't really have done that, would you, Randy?" he asked.

"You gotta scare these guys," I said, trying to sound cool. Actually, with the adrenaline pumping, I might have gotten us all killed.

"I think that's all for the goons," Travis said, "although they must have sent for reinforcements. How far away is Alicea?"

"Close enough to hear you talking," she said. It was her own voice, muffled inside a crate. She banged on the box. Travis lifted the crate from its stack to the floor, prying it open with his bare hands. Alicea stood up, looked at both of us, and passed out.

"Still woozy from the gas. And she had to do a lot of reading," I said.

"Yeah," Travis agreed, gathering her into his arms. "Now how do we get out of here?"

I hadn't thought that far ahead. Floating to shore in a crate seemed reasonable, although we would be sitting ducks in the water. As I thought, the sound of a helicopter grew in the distance.

"There's a chopper," Travis said. "I thought they broke off loading operations when you and JD . . ."

"Oh, no," I said. "they wouldn't . . ."


I looked Travis in the eye. "All this equipment: there's enough here to blow the lid off the Armorlitia, off Wasserman's schemes, everything. It's all evidence."

Fear crept into his expression. "We have lots of incriminating video, but it's not the same as hard evidence," he said.

"They can't keep the McCoy's off the Atoll forever, now that the explosion attracted their attention."

"This stuff has to disappear fast. They don't have time to load it onto ships."

"They're going to blow it all up," I said.

Behind us, an iron wall rose from the mooring at the base of the dock. It was designed to seal off the Atoll from fires or minor explosions on the dock.

"That won't help much," I said, pointing to the wall.

"They started evacuating the Atoll when JD cut loose," Travis said. "I don't think many civilians are still there."

The helicopter drew closer.

"It's just us then," I said. "I lost my video gear in the explosion."

"Our portables were confiscated. How do we contact JD?"

I looked down at Alicea, lying prone in Travis' arms.

"Won't work," he said. "She was never able to transmit thoughts to him."

We could see the chopper in the sky above us now, looming ever closer.

I slapped my forehead. "I'm stupid," I said. "Travis, tear open some crates. Battle helmets have radios."

He slapped himself in disgust as well, then began tearing into boxes. It only took a few seconds to find one containing a full battle suit. I adjusted the frequency in the helmet to the one JD monitored, and alerted him to our situation.

"How far can you fly with three people?" I asked when he was already en route from the mainland.

"Never tried with this new gear," he said. "I guess we'll know in a minute."

We hurried to the outer edge of the dock, Travis carrying Alicea. JD was a tiny glint of silver approaching from the mainland; the helicopter loomed high in the sky above the sea. They must have been waiting for some leftover Armorlitia members to clear the dock; it bought us precious seconds. JD swung over the Atoll itself, achieving a proper approach angle, then dove to pick us up.

"They're gonna fire any second now," Travis said as he watched the helicopter hover.

JD dropped a cable from his flight pack. It slid along the tops of crates as he flew toward us. Travis reached out one hand, clutching Alicea with the other. I reached out with both hands. "Here we go," I said.

We took hold of the table as the terrifying sound of missile launching erupted from the helicopter. JD tugged, achieving lift for a few precious seconds, but he was carrying almost six hundred extra pounds. We began to drop, the clearance between the dock and the water allowing us a few extra yards as we plummeted. I turned to see missiles rocketing toward the docks, then turned away. We felt the blast at our backs. JD lost control, and we crashed into the water as the heat from the explosion overtook us. Impact with the water was hard; it knocked me senseless for a few moments.

We were disoriented, but clear of the blast. JD had flown us just out of reach of danger. A black cloud billowed from the docks. A hunk had been blown out of the Atoll's tourist area, but the buildings were mostly in tact.

"That woke me up," Alicea said as she treaded water.

We were all accounted for. JD's flight pack was removed with the push of a button; it sunk into the Atlantic as he swam.

"The McCoy Units will clean that up," I said.

Travis smiled proudly. "I guess we can say that we exposed the Armorlitia," he said.

The side of a crate drifted by; I grabbed it to help float. "With that explosion and what video we got, they won't be able to slip out of this one," I said. "Although Wasserman might. They won't be able to pin anything on him."

Alicea pulled the hair back from her eyes. "As long as he and my father are around, I'll have to watch my back," she said.

Travis squared his jaw. "We can't have that."

We all looked at each other. We had come too far to quit now.

"We know where he is now," Travis said. "Let's get him."

Chapter 7: The Impressive Chasm

We swam with the waves at our backs, reaching an undamaged section of the Atoll and climbing to safety. We needed warm, dry clothes. Several shops near the rim of the manmade island had collapsed or were on fire. We scavenged merchandise, mostly cheap tourist gear. The kids, with their healthy young bodies, looked fine in the gear; I must have looked like an idiot in an "I Love Atlantic City" tee-shirt and bicycle shorts.

"Wouldn't Wasserman have evacuated the island?" Alicea asked as we dried ourselves.

"It's possible," I said. "But if he's where I think he is, he's in the safest place on the island, and the best place to control what's happening. He still needs to coordinate with that chopper and those boats, so he needs to be in reach of some good telecommunications equipment."

The equipment Wasserman needed was in the network studios located in the basement control center for the island. All video feeds into and out of the island were channeled into one location, where everything from Atoll security to network programming was managed. It was the only place where Wasserman would be able to develop Turing simulations like the one he used to try to dupe me, the only place where he could monitor me and the activities of the Armorlitia cells on the island and off shore. His stature as a major advertiser gave him access to the network feeds; no one would even ask him questions if they spotted him using the equipment. He had definitely been there an hour before, when he had me trapped. Was he still there? It was the place to start looking.

We snuck around the evacuated island, not knowing whether the armed patrolmen in the thoroughfares were Armorlitia or ordinary security. Elevators had been shut down; we found a service entrance which led to the sub-basement. Beneath the island was a network of kitchens and laundries, the guts of the Atoll, where employees put in long shifts to maintain the illusion of paradise above. Signs led us to the network studio, but a locked metal door met us at the entrance.

"Great," JD said. "We lost all our hardware in the ocean."

"Stand back," Travis said. He vainly attempted to batter the door with his shoulder.

I reached into the pouch of my sporty new shorts. "Hey, Blackheart," I said, drawing my key chain.

He pulled back, rubbing his shoulder. "Oh yeah. You work for the network."

I turned the key. We took places on either side of the doorway. I pulled the door open and stepped away. Inside we could hear static and the high squeal of video monitors, as well as faint whispering.

Travis held up his fingers, counting out three. On three, he and JD dove into the room, with Alicea and I bringing up the rear. I shotgun- an old fashioned, gunpowder shotgun- was trained on us. I grabbed Alicea and dropped behind an editing console as Wasserman fired.

He racked the clip; he had a shot left. I peered around the console. He had a headset on. My hunch was correct; he remained in the studio to make sure that the cargo ships left the area without arousing suspicion. "Alpha-Three," he said into the headset. "I must go. Something has come up."

We all had cover; there were plenty of consoles and cameras and workstations to hide in and behind. Travis and JD ducked from one concealment to the next, hoping to swing around behind Wasserman. "Come now, kiddies, do the math," Wasserman said. "Except for Randy, you may all be too young to remember double barrel shotguns, but they only fire two shots. I fired once. I have one shot left, and there are four of you. Unless you all line up conveniently for me, there isn't much I can do."

Alicea looked at me, puzzled. He was right, but what was he getting at?

He raised the rifle into the air and fired at the ceiling. Some plaster crumbled above us. "There. Now I'm unarmed. Let's abandon the pretense that this is some Wild West standoff."

I stood up. Wasserman turned to me and smiled. From behind a light bank Travis and JD emerged, taking their places behind him. "What, no bodyguards?" I asked.

"Their presence would only be one more thing I would have to explain, should the authorities arrive." Wasserman replied, his voice calm. "Besides, you neutralized several of them already."

"So you know we mean business," Travis said. "Your game is up!"

Wasserman burst out laughing. "Did he just say, 'Your game is up!'?" he asked, pointing to Travis. "Randy, where did you find these wonderful kids with their B-movie dialogue?

None of the rest of us joined in the joke.

"No, Blackheart, or Travis, or whoever you are. My game is not 'up'. I doubt any of you have the stomach or the inclination to actually kill me, and short of that, what can you do? Rough me up? It may be satisfying to you, but it wouldn't change anything. Bring me in? Go right ahead. You have no evidence linking me to anything. Best of all, you'd be implicating yourselves as vigilantes. I'd go free. You get to go to jail."

He was right. I had plenty of video evidence of the Armorlitia, but nothing linking it to Wasserman and FamVal. That was burnt to a crisp when JD rescued me. We essentially had him red handed here in the studio- transmission records could be checked to prove that Wasserman was in contact with the helicopter which blew up the dock- but we were powerless to bring the information to the McCoy Units without implicating ourselves.

"That's the beauty of the system I've helped put into place," Wasserman said, smiling at the look of defeat on our faces. "The efforts of a crusading reporter and some ambitious kids are useless against a tightly controlled organization like ours. In the past, yes, a leak here and there could bring down empires, as happened at Watergate. But private citizens abdicated the authority to take action on their own, all in the name of public safety. We've built an impressive chasm between those with power and money and political clout, and such unpredictable elements as yourselves."

"You really think you'll squirm out of this, after all that has happened here?" I asked.

"Oh, it will be awkward," he said, still gloating. "Some of my allies have been left hanging. A loyal subordinate or two may have to fall on his sword to keep appearances up. Certainly, our efforts to keep the McCoys out of the Armorlitia's business will become far more difficult, but you have no idea how resilient the political machine is. As for me . . . I suspect you'll let me walk out that door."

"So you can turn us in as soon as you leave the Atoll?" Travis said.

"Most likely. Unless you would like to try to stop me, which would only give me more physical evidence against you. You put up a good fight, young man, but you made far too many mistakes."

I shook my head. "No, Wasserman. You're the one who made the mistake."

"And what mistake is that?" he asked, patronizingly.

"You let us bring a telepath in here."

A look of concern spread across his face as Alicea stood, glaring into his eyes. "Can you feel me in your head?" She whispered coolly.

His eyes twitched. "Stop it," he demanded.

She stepped forward, keeping her eyes fixed on him "Don't fight me now. It might hurt you. Just sit back and let all those little secrets come out."

He turned away, putting his hands over his eyes. "Nothing you find will hold up in court," he cried.

"Covering your eyes won't help. I'm already in," she said, standing over him. "And what I want doesn't need to stand up in court."

He cowered before her; Travis and JD closed ranks to make sure he didn't try anything, but Wasserman was terrified. He slumped to his knees as she walked away. "What did you find?" he demanded.

She smiled at him "Everything," she said. "All your little skeletons. And not just that, but the places to find the evidence. All the little loose ends you couldn't quite tie up, the ones you hoped no one would be able to connect with you, are all mine now."

She closed her eyes and concentrated for a second. I felt a message flash into my mind. "I've just transferred the data to everyone else in the room," she said. "If Randy wants to, he can do some research, do a little digging, and find enough iron clad evidence on you to put you out of business for a long, long time. And no one will know that superheroes were involved in getting the evidence, so you would be able to lean back on the VPA."

"So I guess you have me," Wasserman said, but I could tell by the sound of his voice that he wasn't ready to give up.

"I know how you think now, Wasserman," she said, stepping toward him and taking his chin in her palm. "Do you think you can hide secrets from me? You think that it shouldn't be any problem to knock out the four of us once your troops regroup. Four minor accidents, and your secret is safe forever, right?

"Forget it," she continued. "When I send information telepathically, it's complete and unforgettable. The moment I set foot off this island, I'll plant the information in the first hundred people I see, with instructions: if Randy Stone, or any of us, turns up dead, then find this information and post in on the web. Unless you're willing to blow up Atlantic City, you won't be able to keep your secret safe."

He looked around. "If I do go down, I take all of you with me," he said.

"That's why I give the information to the first McCoy officer I see," Alicea explained.

"You see the position you're in now?" I asked. "Maybe we should cut a deal, like civilized people."

"What do you want?"

Alicea spoke first. "Call off your goons, and tell my father that I never want to see him again. The first time I see an Armorlitia punk I even suspect of being one of his associates, you take the fall."

Wasserman thought for a second. "Fair enough."

"Nobody finds out about our presence here," I added. "None of us were here: not you, not me, not the kids."

Wasserman indicated that this was satisfactory.

"Last of all, you step down as head of FamVal," I said.

He shook his head. "No way."

"Be reasonable, Wasserman. You step down or we'll take you down. Resign: say you want to spend more time with the family. I doubt that everyone in your organization will approve of 'instigation initiatives' or secret ties to the Armorlitia. Let that sort itself out. Just draw a nice severance check for yourself and walk away."

He lowered his head in disgust. He must have been hoping for some other way out, one that let him keep his precious power base. But if stayed in command of FamVal, we would be back to status quo in no time, and all our work would have been for nothing.

"I guess I don't have a choice," he said.

"You don't," I replied.


We left Wasserman there. He would clean up his own mess, one way or the other. He had his explanations to make when the real cops arrived, and we had ours, and the best place for us was as far from the scene of the action as we could get on a man-made island.

"So what the fuck happened there?" JD asked as we charted a route through the underground service area, listening as the sirens of Coast Guard vessels became louder. He asked Alicea, "What did you get on that clown?"

She smiled coyly. "What, didn't you hear my thoughts?"

He shook his head. "Hell, I never heard your thoughts. Only Travis can do that."

"Yeah, but Wasserman didn't know that," I said.

Travis threw his arms around JD and Alicea. "Alicea sent Randy and I a message," he said. "It said: play along."

"You bastards bluffed him! Didn't you find anything on him?"

Alicea shook her head. "I'm too tired to read any minds, JD. It's all I could do to send messages to the guys when they were looking for me. I would have passed out if I tried to read his mind."

"Lucky for us he was paranoid," I said. "A guy like that acts as though he's in total control, but he's always looking over his shoulder. Probably the only thing he fears in this world is his own past."

"So we put the Armorlitia out of commission, put the whammy on the asshole in the suit, and I got to kick Alicea's dad's ass," Travis said. "Pinch me, Randy. Just pinch me."

JD laughed. "Not bad for a bunch of fucked up street punks, huh Randy?"

"You guys are more than that now," I said, and I meant it. As I watched the three of them walk arm in arm, I realized how much they had changed in five months. "It looks like the Goths finally came out on top."

We came to a stairwell that climbed into the sunlight. Travis held out a hand to stop us. He crept up the stairs to see what was going on at the surface. I crawled beside him to peek over the lip of the stairs. The Atoll was crawling with uniforms. Emergency Units. Fire Units. Bomb disposal experts. Coast Guard patrols. And cops of every size and shape, from McCoy officers in full tech to Atlantic City beatwalkers.

"You spoke too soon, Randy," Travis said.

The others joined us. There was no chance of slipping through the scene unnoticed, and no chance of us explaining our way out of there without asking a thousand questions, the answers to which would have landed all of us in jail.

"Listen," I told them. "Everyone knows who I am, and after the broadcast, everyone knows that I'm here. I'll go up there and try to explain the situation. You three lay low."

"I'm going with you," Alicea said. "I'll do some reading and figure out what they think happened."

"I thought you just said you were too tired to read," JD said.

"She is," I answered. "She just doesn't want me to go alone, but it's the only way."

"The hell with that," Travis said. "We can't just sit here and wait for you. They'll be searching down here in a few minutes. I'm going out there." He started to stand up.

Alicea grabbed his arm. "Travis, you asshole, you'll be in handcuffs in five seconds."

"Like I don't know that," he replied, taking her hand.

JD scratched his head. "I hope you all don't expect me to get involved in this race to see who can go out there and take the fall for everybody else. I've done my good deeds for the year."

Time was wasting. I looked at JD and Alicea, dressed in the tourist gear we lifted when we climbed back onto the Atoll. There was video of me, and Travis was a wanted man, but no one knew them. "You two can pass off as tourists who hid under a trash bin when the explosions started. That's two less we have to worry about. Get some distance between yourselves and us."

Alicea got stubborn. "No way."

I rested a hand on her shoulder. "You know I'm right and this is the best way."

Travis clutched her hand tightly. "We all know it."

Alicea looked to Travis, then back to me, then over to Travis again, both of us telling her the same thing. She kissed me on the cheek, then threw her arms around Travis and hugged him tightly. They hugged forever. Then she whispered "goodbye" to both of us and followed JD through the tunnels to get lost somewhere.

"She'll be OK," Travis said.

I nodded.

"Randy, you have no idea how the hell I got out of jail or what I was doing here."

I patted him on the back. "Screw that, kid. I'll vouch for you, say you're an intern or something. Or we can fight our way out."

He rolled his eyes. "You know it won't fly. But if I went out there and said I was part of the Armorlitia, and said that I was sprung from rehab by them . . ."

". . . It wraps up in a neat package," I finished. "But I can't ask you to take the fall."

He clenched his teeth. "You don't have to, Randy. It's all been leading to this."

He looked me in the eyes.

"All the jammin', all the fights, all the prescriptions and the wars and arguments with Alicea that lasted all night were about one thing: a chance to do some real good. I had no fucking idea where I was going, and I was hurting people, I was hurting Alicea . . ." I saw the strangest sight: tears welling in the big man's eyes. "I was hurting Julianna."

He lost it. I put my arms around his shoulders.

"I was just so far off the fucking mark," he said, sniffling with tears. "I wanted to be a hero. I just had no clue what it meant."

He caught his breath. "I know what it's about now, Randy. Sacrifice. I used to use the word all the time, but I think I've got it figured out. If I go out there and take that fall, so you and Alicea and JD can go free and spread the word about what we did, then I finally make some kind of mark on the world."

His mind was made up. I might have tried to talk him out of it, but he was right: his was the one head that had to roll. I told him I would make sure his story was told. I promised him the best lawyer I could afford. I assured him that the way things shook, down, he wouldn't serve hard time. I offered him everything I had, but I wasn't going to talk him out of taking that fall, not after he finally realized what it meant to be noble.

"Just promise me," he said. "Take care of her."

I said I would do my best.

He stood up, dusted himself off, and stepped out into the daylight. I watched from our hiding place. He held out his hands for the cuffs the moment he was asked his name. "Travis Michael Hood," he shouted with pride, "a.k.a. Blackheart."

Chapter 8

Epilogue: Crusaders by Day

The backstage area at the Mercer Junior College auditorium wasn't exactly mobbed with press types. It was just little old me, twenty minutes late despite myself. But nothing ever happens on time at a college, especially a junior college.

"Wish me luck, Randy," Julianna said, and I kissed her on the cheek. She was a sight for sore eyes, her hair short now and her cheeks rosy and fleshed out. She hugged me tightly. I could feel her shaking. She ran to the edge of the curtain.

"She said this is the scariest thing she ever had to do," her boyfriend Dylan said. "She said this makes charging into a warehouse with ray guns strapped to her arm seem like going out for pizza."

I smiled up at the lanky kid. "Public speaking has that effect on people."

The auditorium was half full. The polite audience quieted when Julianna stepped to the podium. She read her notes from index cards.

"Good afternoon, everyone. As part of the Student Life Committee Lecture Series, Students Against Violence is proud to present Chances and Choices: Avoiding the Temptation of Violence."

She stumbled over the introduction. Her microphone hissed once or twice. Dylan gave her an encouraging thumbs-up from behind the curtain.

"My name is Julianna Hood, and I'm president of Students Against Violence. Our organization is dedicated to reaching out to the community and educating young people about the cycle of failure which can start by joining street gangs, using muscle drugs, or becoming part of the gun culture.

"Many feel that this is an inner city problem, but we feel it's important to recognize the problem in high schools and colleges, cities and suburbs and the country. A wealthy background doesn't immunize us from the dangerous of youth violence. I should know. I was raised in a good home by a loving family, yet I spent two years in a street gang, living in the slums of Atlantic City."

This brought whispers and murmurs from the crowd. The controversy emboldened Julianna; she spoke more forcefully. "This was over a year ago, before the Vigilante Prevention Acts were repealed. We fought because we thought the laws were unjust, and they were. We fought because we thought we could make a difference, and in a way we did. Sadly, though, the main reason we fought was because it was all that we knew how to do. Violence begot violence, and it became the main part of our lives."

Dylan put his head down. He didn't like hearing about this part of her life. I remembered the wild runs through the streets of Atlantic City, and the damp miserable nights in that flophouse.

"The Vigilante Prevention Acts are gone now. The government realized that taking all the power away from private citizens made the problem worse. A dialogue has opened about the superhero culture and the dangers of drugs like Rae-Tae, dialogue that wasn't possible under the iron hand of the McCoy police.

"But while relaxing the laws was good and healthy for society, it's up to us to work harder than ever. Young people need to be taught how to resolve differences without drugs or weapons. We have choices now, the government has given us some of that back. We have to make the right choices."

"You know who would be proud of her? Her mom."

Julianna kept speaking. "We had to pay for our choices. My brother is in prison now, despite the fact that he helped expose the Armorlitia. Another of our friends had to join a secret organization until the VPA was repealed. She's training to become a private investigator. That's a choice we didn't really have a year ago, but the road she took getting there nearly killed her."

"Her mom always told her and Travis to speak their minds, to stand up for themselves. I never thought it really stuck with her, but it sure as hell stuck with him."

"As for me, I was lucky to get into a good foster home, to meet good friends," she said. "The world of power gauntlets, street fights, booze and drugs nearly swallowed me up."

"Listen to her now, though: she can really take care of herself. And those big-ass words: I hope they don't expect me to sound like that."

"The person who will be speaking today was one of my gang friends back in those days. He spent more time on the streets than any of us. Except for my brother, he also gave up the most. He nearly died of a drug overdose on a New York subway grate. At 25, he's still struggling to make ends meet and lead a normal life."

"Shit, she makes me sound like such a loser. Guess it's the truth, though."

"Ladies and gentlemen, SAV proudly presents Jeremy David Orczykowski."

JD stepped past me and onto stage, looking uncomfortable in a shirt and tie. The crowd applauded politely. Julianna and JD hugged, and he began to tell the students about life on the streets.


Alicea sat on the hood of my car. "Did everything go well?" she asked.

I kissed her on the cheek. "This college will never be the same, now that JD has been allowed to speak as part of a lecture series."

She smiled.

"You would have been a better choice," I said.

"So would you," she replied.

"Nah. My speeches cost too much now. If I gave one away for free here, every college would want one."

She swung her legs around and hopped off my car. "That's the Randy I know and love: crusader by night, mercenary by day."

"Even if you didn't speak," I said, "I think Julianna would have liked to have seen you. JD too."

She bit her lip. "I'm sure they would. I would like to see them. But it doesn't work that way. What we went through: it wasn't some coming of age ritual. I don't want to be like war veterans, who meet every few years to talk about what hell they went through. This doesn't deserve commemoration."

I leaned against the hood of my car. "So that's why you don't return my calls."

She rested her head on my shoulder. "You were right when we first separated: I need to be myself for a while. Travis never got the point. My dad didn't have a clue. You understood that. Unfortunately, it cost us the chance to even pretend for a while."

I put my arm around her. "I understand. So why are you here now?"

She turned and threw her arms around my neck. "Valley Green gave me the week off. I heard about this event, and figured I'd find you here. I don't want to have a relationship, Randy, not right now. But you can't expect a girl to quit cold turkey."

She smiled up at me.

"I know what you're thinking," she said.

"What else is new?" I asked as I kissed her.

The End

© 1999 Mike Tanier: I am a mathematics and computer programming teacher in Southern New Jersey. While I have written other science fiction short stories (including "Twitch" for Aphelion), Superhero Nation is my first full-length science fiction novel. When not writing fiction, I write football research articles and self-publish an annual football guide, which should be available in August of 1999.

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