Life and Light: Shadow-Force Reborn (Updated Jan. 24, 2011)

The Shadow

Life and Light: Shadow-Force Reborn (Updated May 8, 2019)

Hello out there! This is a solo Mutants & Masterminds campaign following on from a very long-running Champions game retired fondly years ago, dubbed "Shadow-Force". Details on the setting are posted in this thread.

Some of you may remember me as the writer of The Shadow Knows!, another solo M&M campaign but one very different in tone. (The similarity in names between "The Shadow" and "Shadow-Force" is pure coincidence - the two worlds have nothing in common, except for an in-joke or two.) This is more of a four-color experience. Plots have been laid for this current campaign for quite some time; it's been good to get it in action!

The game is usually played over the phone, though the GM - who goes by SuentisPo online, or SP for short - and I sometimes manage to get together for a marathon in-person session. Work scheduling issues often get in the way, but we will probably manage to game every 2-3 weeks. (I have a backlog of existing sessions to start posting, so that'll tide things over for a while.)

This first post is actually a short-short I wrote as a proposal to SP about how to start off the new game. (It involves retconning one of the final adventures of the original campaign.) He approved it.


Life and Light

Jon stirred, moaning. He'd never felt so much pain, not even his first day as a superhero when he'd been shot multiple times. Somebody was saying something, but it took him a while to take it in. "Photon, can you hear me? Photon, can you hear me?" Finally, he managed to croak, "Yes, Alpha, I'm awake." The computer's voice radiated relief. "Good. Do you need medical attention?"

"Dunno yet. Hurts like anything. Just a second." Taking a minute to catalog all his aches and pains, he cautiously tried to turn over and get his legs under him - then yelped as his ribs shot fire all through his torso. "Yowch!" Reflexively, he reached out to the zero-point, the timeless quantum satori of subatomic reality. His body scintillated for a moment, then he stood up. "Er. I think I needed some until just now. What just happened?" X-97 Alpha was uncharacteristically silent for a moment. "You, uh, took light-form for a split-second. Strobed on my camera." "What?! And I'm still here?! And in one piece?" "Seems so." "No broken ribs any more, either. Weird. Anyway... Whoa! What the heck hit me?!"

"Jessica." "Huh?! Erebus' girlfriend?" "Yep." "She, uh, doesn't have powers? That was no ordinary blow." "Didn't. She's been infected by the Shadow Realm, and apparently it's gone to her head. Shot you in the back with a darkbolt." "Why me? Oh, right. Duh. Light powers." "Right. She probably saw you as the biggest threat around."

Jon collected his wits, trying to take in the situation. The room - the dining area of the Shadow Force base - was a mess, chairs and smashed crockery everywhere. "Where is she now?" He started striding to the Situation Room. "Opened a portal to the Shadow Realm and left." "Where's the rest of the team?" "The Phantom and Erebus are in the Shadow Realm too. No word for several hours. Bazooka and Brimstone are out on patrol; I've called them back in. Beta's doing Show and Tell for some school kids; he'll be back soon too. Technoid... he's puttering. As usual." "Yeah." Technoid hadn't been the same since he'd been accidentally melded with his armor and other inventions a couple months previous.

Soon the remainder of the Shadow Force was gathered in the Situation Room. Jon outlined the situation with Alpha's help, then appealed to Bazooka. "What do we do now?" The older man shook his head. "Not much we can do. Unless Scott can whip up a Shadow Realm portal?"

Technoid smiled distantly. "Probably. With time. My other project takes up much of my attention." Bazooka barked at him, "Dammit, Scott! Mike and James are your friends! You've known them longer than we have!" The cybernetic gadgeteer shrugged. "I value their existence. But there are... higher issues... at stake." Bazooka shook his head in disgust. "Higher issues which, as usual, you can't be bothered to explain." "Quite correct."

Jon broke in, "There has to be something we can do!" Bazooka shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "Erebus is the only hero I've ever heard of with Shadow Realm power. We wouldn't even have heard of the place if not for him." Brimstone offered hesitantly, "Maybe there's a mage out there who can cast a spell to contact them?" Beta's mechanical voice stated flatly, "Contacting the Guardians is the logical course of action."

Everyone except Technoid (who continued to stare off into space) stared at the robot. (Beta wasn't usually known for his brains, and didn't talk much.) Alpha enthused, "That's actually a great idea, brother!"

Jon nodded. "It is." The Galactic Guardians were the resident superhero team of Washington, D.C., and were some of the most powerful beings on the planet. They also acted as an informal information clearinghouse and liason for hero teams throughout the country. "I suppose you'll talk to them, Bill?" Bazooka shook his head. "I know how to fight; I leave the talking to those who can do it." "Right. How about you, Liz?" (Technoid and Beta were obviously out of the question.) Brimstone shook her head too. "Go for it, Jon. You've dealt with them before."

Jon swallowed, "Er, yeah. OK." Fighting down his sometimes-crippling shyness, he told Alpha, "Open a line to the Guardians." "Got it, Photon." A videoscreen came to life, and Starflare looked directly at him. "Photon! Good to hear from you guys in Seattle again. What's up?" Jon flushed - Starflare was too cute for words. "Er, uh. Yeah." Starflare smiled patiently, used to her effect on young men... "Uh, the Phantom and Erebus have vanished into the Shadow Realm, and we don't know how to go after them. Plus, at least one person - Erebus' girlfriend - has been infected with Shadow power. Frankly, we're at a loss as to how to proceed."

The Lady of Light frowned. "I see your problem. The Shadow Realm is 'far' from the Earth dimension, I'm told. Not many people have been there. I'm sending Dr. Miracle your way, he might be able to help." "Thanks..." Jon was interrupted by a POOF and an impressive puff of smoke as the mage teleported in. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and mismatched socks. Swearing softly, he snapped his fingers and his costume appeared around him. "Right, well, yes. Let's get started."

After several hours of arcane manipulations (literally), Dr. Miracle sighed helplessly. "Sorry, kid. There's nothing I can do. I can see vaguely into the blasted place, but not well enough to find them. If I had a Shadow-imbued object or person to work with, I could probably do better, but... Buck up, though. Erebus is the only expert on the Shadow Realm around, and a survivor like no other. As for the Phantom, he's a Class Five psychic and a top-notch hero - we've had an eye on him ever since the P.S.I. incident. They'll turn up."


After a month of the two heroes not turning up, Bazooka called another team meeting. The ex-military man's face was hard and sad. "Let's face facts, people. Mike and James aren't coming back any time soon. And they, with Scott, are the core of the team. They're gone and Scott is useless. What are we left with in terms of a team?" He looked around slowly, and continued, "I have no illusions about my own ability. I've got powers, yeah, but I'm not versatile - I shoot things and that's it. Liz has a few more tricks, but she's in pretty much the same boat. Beta punches things as well as shooting them. Jon, you're versatile, but frankly you're green as hell. What's more, none of us have the contacts in the city and beyond that the Phantom had; and with Jessica gone, our bankroll could dry up at any second."

Jon said quietly, "You're talking about splitting up." "What choice do we have? We're going through the motions at the moment, and sure we can handle any bank robbery or whatever that turns up. But if another mentalist like the Doctor comes to town, do you think any of us stands a real chance? He killed the Freedom Squad single-handed, and if the Phantom hadn't been there to protect us we'd all be dogmeat too. Every single one of us, except maybe Beta. What if Diabolus comes back? Without Erebus, none of us has any magical ability. Hell, even Forestrike and his gang would probably push us over at the moment!"

"So, what? We're going to stop hero-ing? Seattle needs us!" "No. Liz and I have talked, and we'll keep at it together - either here or in Phoenix where her folks are. But by hanging out our shingle as a team, as Shadow-Force, we attract a certain class of enemy, get into certain kinds of trouble - bigger trouble than we can handle. I don't like it either, Jon, but that's how it is."

"And what about Mike's body?! He's still on life support in the vault while his mind astral-projects to God knows where!" Bazooka sighed. "Jessica's dad will likely find it cheaper to put him up in a hospital than to maintain this whole base. It's the least he can do."

Near tears, Jon asked, "Alpha? Beta?" Alpha said slowly, "I'm wired into this building. I can be reinstalled elsewhere, but frankly it'd be a pain - both literally and figuratively." Beta stated, "My father is dead and my brother is here. I have friends here. I will stay." Jon nodded slowly. "Okay then."

Speaking to a press conference later that day, heart pounding, Jon told his city, "Yes, Shadow-Force is breaking up. But I for one will continue to stand up for Seattle for as long as there is life and light in me. X-97 Beta stands with me. If there is anyone else out there with the power and the heart to join us, we will welcome you."

"But even if not - even if we have to stand alone - we will not leave our city to those who would prey upon it. We just won't."

"You have my word."
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The Shadow

1 - So It Begins

In the days that followed the news conference, calls poured in from around the country, notably from teams that Shadow-Force had worked with in the past.

Starflare called on behalf of the Galactic Guardians in Washington: "That was brave. We know you're capable, so we'll do what we can for you; we can't hold your hand, but if you need major help, we're there."

Moke of the Portland Protectors, who'd worked with Shadow-Force a number of times on regional issues: "Terribly sorry to hear you guys are breaking up. Any word on the Phantom or Erebus?" "None, I'm afraid," Photon told him. "That's a shame. We'll help out where we can - we can't get up there fast, but we'll try to arrange to have one of us up there on a rotating basis." "I really appreciate it. And if you guys need anything, well, I can be there fast." "Might well take you up on that. Stay safe!"

Lone Star called from Dallas on behalf of her teammate Pecos Bill, who had worked closely with the Phantom against P.S.I.: "Bill would have called himself, but he's got unavoidable family business. We just want you to know we're thinkin' of you."

Likewise, a Miami team that had helped against P.S.I. called with condolences and good wishes, along with miscellaneous others.

It just made Jon feel all the more alone, really - driving home that the team was dead, its heart ripped out.

Alpha called another team meeting (ex-team meeting?) shortly after. "Bazooka, Brimstone - I understand you're considering moving to Arizona. Is that definite?" Bazooka said quietly, "Yes." "Can I convince you to stay a few weeks longer?" "We have to leave within three weeks. What's up?" "I'm worried about Technoid." [Me: "You know it's serious when your computer wants to stage an intervention." :)]

Alpha paused to let that sink in, then said, "His lab is sealed, and my sensors in there have gone dead. The power drain in there is... significant. He hasn't eaten in 24 hours, and I don't think he's slept in the last 48. Somebody needs to talk to him." Jon offered, "I can try to fly in there in light-form...?" "By all means."

The four heroes walked grimly to the armored door leading to the lab. Brimstone said, "Let's try talking to him first." Pressing the intercom button, she said, "Scott, can you hear me? Scott, are you there? Scott, we're concerned about you." Jon added, "We're your friends, Scott. We care about you." There was no response. After several more tries, Bazooka said, "Over to you, Jon."

Jon sighed and swept the lab door with his X-ray vision before trying anything rash. "Uh oh. He's reinforced the door with a force field. I can't get through that." Bazooka nodded grimly. "Liz, can you teleport in?" "I'll try..." There was a chuffing sound and the usual stench of sulfur, but Brimstone didn't vanish; instead she doubled over in pain, gasping, "Yep, he's got the place shielded all right!"

Bazooka said coldly, "Right. That's hostile." Jon cut in, "Wait a minute! Let's not jump to conclusions!" Bill ground his teeth, then said, "Well, in any case, we need to get in there. I'm shooting the door down. You with me?" "Yeah."

Bill planted his feet and called up his force field, a stationary cylindrical affair he could extend into his namesake kinetic blasts. Photon joined him, activating his best laser configuration. The two blasts struck in unison, visibly crumpling the door but not destroying it. A second coordinated blast took large chunks out of the door; the half-visible force field flickering somewhat but staying more or less on.

Taking a look through the gaps was... confusing. There appeared to be a large energy construct hovering over a platform of some kind - round, and ringed by glowing arcs of energy. "The angle's wrong," Bill muttered, "it can't be that big." As they were pondering, Beta casually ripped the remainder of the door off its hinges; the force field took this as the last straw and flickered out. When they looked at him quizzically, the robot stated, "It was more efficient this way." Shrugging, Bill and Jon went in.

The room was large, much too large for the building. Where it had been a good-sized laboratory with a twelve-foot ceiling, now it was a forty-foot cube. Bill said incredulously, "This isn't possible." Jon, ever the scientist, said practically, "If we're seeing what's really there, obviously it is possible." "Fair enough..." They looked at the energy construct.

Twenty feet across if it was an inch, the rings of energy - three of them - proved to surround the twelve-foot inner sphere orthogonally. Jon examined it on several different wavelengths. "Don't shoot it, whatever you do." "Why not?" "Those rings are shielding us from the thing in the middle. It's... well, it's putting out a LOT of energy. Like a small sun. If the rings get deactivated, we're all dead. So is a good-sized chunk of Seattle - maybe all of it, I'm not sure." Bazooka: "Er, yeah. Don't shoot it. Got it. Thanks."

After some awed pondering, Bazooka wondered aloud, "What's the power source? We don't want to shoot that, either!" Jon nodded, "Good point." After scanning some more, he said, "Good grief. He's got a microfusion reactor in there. It's powering the rings; the power draw on the electrical grid is only to keep the reactor going. Do you have any idea how much that thing would be worth? Billions, easy." (Although he couldn't make sense of the controls, Jon could manage to read the gauge for fuel usage; the reactor had sufficient fuel to keep going for years, if not decades.) Bill nodded. "Well... let's find him."

A search of the remainder of the room turned up a pallet Technoid evidently slept on, leads from a large nearby machine resting on it. There was also a strange device with six parabolic emitters attached to it with cables; Photon speculated hesitantly that it might have something to do with the energy construct. Also a machinery-encrusted tube large enough for a human body, though it was empty. Though there was much large equipment around, Jon's X-ray vision found no trace of Technoid.

"Alpha, are you getting any of this? Can you see through Beta's eyes?" Alpha's voice came faintly through the speaker outside the door, "I lose contact with him in there, sorry. What's going on?" Jon told him; after a long pause, Alpha said, "That is... not logical, but if you say you see it, I believe you. Can you get me a look in there?" Jon went and fetched a video camera on a cable to the outside so Alpha could see. "Bizarre. Can't help you, sorry. I got nothing." (Intrigued by Alpha's inability to communicate directly with the room, Jon checked: Radar pulses went through the door only very sluggishly.)

Bill looked around and snarled in frustration, "Where can he be?!"

Jon started. "But it's obvious." "Huh?!" Jon shrugged and hooked a thumb at the energy construct. "Unless he teleported out or something, he's got to be in that thing. It's big enough." They all stared at the glowing ball again. "I will be damned," Bill muttered, "...Jon, can you polarize your vision or something to see in there? It's too bright for us."

"Huh. Dunno, never tried. Let me think about it..." After a few seconds of tinkering with the fabric of spacetime and/or chatting up his subatomic buddies, Jon succeeded in stopping down the brightness considerably. "Oh. Oh my."

There was indeed a shadowy humanoid figure in there, upright with hands uplifted, though he couldn't make out details. "There's somebody in there all right. Odd, though, if it's Technoid, he's detached that big weapons port on his right arm; I'd be able to see it."

Bazooka swore softly. "Damn, I miss Mike." Jon nodded glumly. "Yeah. He'd pick up the image from my mind and contact him telepathically. No way we can talk to him."

Bill asked, "You're our tech guy now, I guess - unless you want to get FAQ up here?" "Oh good grief. Let's not, unless we have to." "Heh. Yeah. He's way too cocky for me to feel safe with him messing around with explosives. So, any way you can defuse the thing, or turn it off?" "Haven't the faintest idea, to be honest. I suppose I could try towing it into space, but it'd be really dangerous. I'd have to do it really fast, for one thing, and it'd put Scott's life in danger." "As opposed to millions in danger if it explodes?" "True..." "Could you get it through the roof?" Photon looked up. "That's the tricky part, yes. Especially since I have no idea where that ceiling leads to, come to think - probably not to the roof of the base. Could be Bermuda, for all I know. Or another planet. Or even the floor we're standing on!" Bazooka snorted, "It just gets more fun by the minute, doesn't it?"

He punched his hand in frustration. "Dammit, this is the last straw! First Mike and James abandon us, and now this!" "Abandon?! What are you saying?!"

"They didn't leave us a message, they just skipped out!" "You know them better than that! Heck, I know them better than that, and you've known them longer than I have!" "You don't go running off to another dimension without telling the team!" "If they did it, they had a good reason. You know that! They'll tell us all about it when they get back!"

Bill said harshly, "They aren't coming back, Jon." "What?!" "If they were going to, they would have by now." "Well, why wouldn't they?" "Maybe they're dead."

It was the first time anyone had said it out loud. Bill paused, wincing, then forced himself to continue, "Or maybe imprisoned. Maybe off saving the multiverse, for all I know. Maybe Erebus found something better and they didn't bother to let us know." "Bill, you know that's not true." "Yeah."

After an awkward pause, Jon asked quietly, "Is there any way I can convince you guys to stay here in Seattle? It's too big for me and Beta. You said it yourself - I'm green." Bill sighed. "How long have you been with us, Jon? A year?" "About that." "Five years I've fought at their side. Five years! All of our tactics are designed around Mike and James' intel. I feel like I'm missing my left arm out there, and both eyes!" Jon admitted, "We're a reconnaissance-based team." "You know it. And nobody does recon like the Phantom and Erebus. If I hadn't seen it myself, over and over, I'd never believe it."

Quietly, Jon said, "They're the heart of the team." Bill shook his head sadly. "Mike was. Erebus was many things... Don't get me wrong, there's nobody I'd rather have at my side or at my back in a fight. But he wasn't a heart."

The remnant of Shadow-Force pondered the truth of that. Jon asked, "Is that why you're really leaving? Too many memories around here?" Bill looked away, face twisting, and Liz said quietly, "That's part of it."

Bill finally said, "The other part... You know when Liz and I were ambushed on patrol a couple weeks ago?" "Yeah - it sounded like you didn't have much trouble with it." "Luckily, we didn't. But if they'd been just a little smarter, we might both be dead. It never would've happened at all before." "How will that be any different in Phoenix?" "There's fewer people there that want us dead? We've made a lot of enemies in Seattle, Jon." Photon sighed, nodding. "Occupational hazard, I'm afraid."

"So it's settled. We'll stay here a few more days, to see if Scott comes out of that thing. But we are leaving." Jon nodded, swallowing hard. "...You've done this longer than I have. How can I handle this place on my own?" Bazooka said gruffly, "Form your own tactics, design them around what you can do. Don't show all your cards - keep some of your capabilities quiet until they're really needed. Make connections - God knows Mike's charm got us out of nearly as much trouble as his powers did."

Jon nodded again, slowly, his eyes filling up. "I'll miss you guys. If... Well. If I need help... will you come?" Bill looked at his feet; Liz spoke for the two of them. "If we can, Jon, yes. Of course we will." [Of course, they all knew that Brimstone's teleport range wasn't nearly up to travelling the distance from Phoenix to Seattle....] Bazooka added, "It's not like you'll be all alone, either. Chameleon contacted me, and he's stuck in Texas - family stuff, he said - but Mystra is still in town."

Liz sniffed. "She's a total flake." "She's been useful in the past." "She's a flake and a flirt!" "I never looked at her!" Photon carefully did not get between the two of them.

As they trooped back to the Situation Room, Jon changed the subject hesitantly, "What I can't figure out is this... Shortly before they disappeared, Mike developed the ability to stay active in his physical body while his Phantom-form was projected. Yet there he is on life support in the vault, out like a light." Bazooka sighed. "For that matter, he should be able to just switch off his projection and pop back into his body instantly. I've seen him do it, lots of times." "Maybe it works differently when his astral form is in another dimension?" "Beats me. For that matter, I can't imagine anyone or anything preventing James from fighting his way out of the Shadow Realm. Home turf advantage, and all that - not to mention that he was the meanest son of a bitch I've ever fought alongside."

On that cheery note, they parted. Shortly after, Jon got a call he'd been dreading - a summons of the remainder of Shadow-Force to Carlton Industries. The company owned by Jessica's father.

Soon he and Beta were ensconced in an imposing office. Malcolm Carlton surveyed them impassively for a time. "Only the two of you, eh? More's the pity. Any word on the missing?"

"No, sir," Jon said quietly, "There's been no word at all." "I suppose I owe you an apology on behalf of the family. While I obviously wasn't in control of my daughter's actions at the time, I'm told she did you serious injury." "She wasn't in her right mind, sir. And I recovered fine." "Glad to hear it. All the same, I am sorry." "Accepted." "Good. Now, to business. What's going on with Technoid? I hear he's been erratic lately, and the electric bill for the base has gone up sharply." Sweating, Jon broke the news about Technoid's lab.

Carlton's eyes widened and he drummed his fingers on the desk. "A miniaturized fusion reactor, you say? My, my. Hmm. What would happen if we disconnected it to take a better look?" "The base would blow up, along with a five block radius around it, minimum." The man scowled, slapping his palm down. "I dislike being blackmailed. Whether consciously or not, he's assuming I'm going to just keep paying the bills. Unfortunately, he happens to be right." "I hear what you're saying, sir, and I understand your position... just please understand that we're not happy about it either."

"Have you had any success in forming a new team?" "Not yet, sir, no. But with the power vacuum we've left in this city, there are bound to be supervillains moving here." Carlton nodded sourly. "This guy who calls himself 'Captain Kidd', for one." "He's strictly small fry, sir." "I don't know, the Navy wants him pretty badly. He's been a serious nuisance to their shipyard in Bremerton." "True... but there'll be others in time, tougher than he is. And eventually heroes will follow them. We'll have a team here again someday."

Carlton nodded. "Photon... I'm going to have to decommission the base." Jon heaved a sigh, lowering his head into a hand. "That hurts, Mr. Carlton." "I'm sorry, son. But the place is a dangerous liability as is. There's a lot of weaponry in there, as well as plenty of other hazardous stuff - the more so with this energy thing, which we are going to keep carefully under wraps. The Phantom and Erebus had the reputation to make most people think three times before attacking; Bazooka and Brimstone have enough rep to give them pause. No offense, but you and Beta don't. And I can't justify upkeep on the place for just the two of you, either."

Photon waited for Alpha to speak up through Beta's voice; when he didn't, he asked, "What about Alpha?" With a sigh, the old man said, "We'll pay to help him get situated. And if he wants a job, he's got it. For that matter, so do you." Carlton paused, then added ruefully, "I realize you've probably had your fill of people telling you, 'We'd love to help, but.' I'm sorry I can't give you what you want, but I really do want to do what I can." "I've got sufficient work, thank you." "The offer's open."

Jon then asked, "And what about the Phantom's physical body?" Carlton's brows furrowed. "What...about it?" "He's still on life support in the base's vault." "Huh. I... never thought about the Phantom's body. Don't think I ever saw it. Well. We'll definitely move him to a safe place and do everything we can for him. God knows I owe him." "All of Seattle does, sir." "True, but I mean personally." [Speaking as the Phantom's player, I was mystified by this until I recalled just now a time that the Phantom saved Jessica's life.]

"Will you let me know where you put him, sir? I would like to visit him now and then." "Haven't worked it out yet, but when we do we'll let you know. Keep it quiet." "Of course."

Carlton came to a decision. "I can do this much for you, Photon. I won't tear the base down. And if you do manage to form a viable team, it's yours." "Thank you, Mr. Carlton. That means a lot." "My door is open. Make an appointment first, though."

Flying back to the base, Photon asked Alpha over his communicator, "How much of the stuff in the base can we take away?" Alpha snorted. "I know where everything is, down to the last detail. I've got plans laid." "Alpha... How much of the stuff belongs to us?" "Well, if you put it that way... OK, OK. Not as much as I'd like. But a lot of it was made by Technoid, and in the absence of a will or other legal instrument, I think we can conclude it belongs to us more than anyone else. It was made for the sake of the team, after all, and certainly he and I worked together closely on lots of it."

"Fair enough. ... Are you going to take that job offer?" "I don't need the money... But we do need the connections. I think I will." "Where are you going to go?" "I've examined the possibility of relocating outside Seattle..." Jon gasped, "Don't tell me you two are leaving too!" "...But I've concluded that's a suboptimal course of action. For one thing, unlike some people I think the Phantom and Erebus are coming back. We're staying."

Jon took a deep breath, let it out, then pointed to the Greek letter on his chest and joked with gallows humor, "Maybe I should change my codename to Gamma to fit in around here." Alpha laughed. "Good one. Oh - by the way, the mail came in. There's a letter for you." "For me?! From who?" "Doesn't say." "What's the return address?" "Rome, Italy looks like." "Rome?! Curiouser and curiouser..."

Arriving back at the base, Photon examined the letter, postmarked a couple days before his news conference. "Rome. Weird." He opened it, to find in elegant handwriting:

The Letter said:

Dear Photon,

I hope you checked this letter for traps.
"CRAP!" "What?!" "The first sentence says, 'I hope you checked this letter for traps!'" "Er. Does Beta need to get you to the infirmary?" "Dunno, let me read the rest!"

The Letter said:

Now that I've got you in the right frame of mind, this is Forestrike. I assure you that I am not in the location this letter was postmarked or addressed from. Did you notice the difference?
"It's Forestrike!" The Phantom's old enemy, wily even in defeat. Alpha groaned. "HIM again!" Jon examined the letter again - sure enough, the postmark was from London, not Rome. Reading aloud now, he continued:

Forestrike said:

Although we've never met, I'm sure you've heard a great deal about me. I have certainly heard much about you. Did you listen to the Phantom's stories about me? You won't have the chance to do that again for a long time. As for your technically-minded associate, I hope you don't have a future need to repair X-97 - either one of them; he is no longer your friend.
"Heard a great deal about me? Flattering, I suppose, but how? And how would he know about you, Alpha?" "Beats me! And dang, but precognitives are so SMUG!" [Actually, I said that out of character. But it's too darn appropriate not to have someone say it. :)]

There followed without fanfare a number of prophecies:

Forestrike said:

You should open letters more carefully.

I recommend against Whispering to the knife.

Beware of Tezcatlipoca.

Please don't pull the plug, any of them.

Nephrite is beautiful and worthless; and faithless.

When the Door is open, only the Dead can close it; from the other side.

I have lied to you once.

You will need to save the world.

No pressure,

"'I have lied to you once'? What the heck?" "He's playing with you. He and the Phantom were always playing mental chess against each other, on at least five different boards at once. Apparently, he's decided you're to fill Mike's shoes."

With dripping sarcasm, "Wow, I feel so honored." "Probably you should. Think about it."

"Yeah... I guess. And there's one bit of good news in this." "Oh?"

"He said I won't get to hear stories from the Phantom for a long time. That implies Mike is alive, and that he's coming back someday." "Hmm. Unless he lied about that - but no, that wouldn't make much sense. Of course, precognition isn't perfect."

"Still, this is hope, whether he meant it that way or not. We need hope." "That we do."

[I'm kicking myself. When Bazooka asked why he shouldn't shoot the energy construct, I really, really should have said, "It would be bad." :)]
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The Shadow

2 - Bolt From the Blue

[Another RP-heavy session, but with some action at the end. Enjoy!]

Jon stood in the base's vault, looking down at the Phantom's still form. The IV had been replaced by a feeding tube, but other than that he looked the same as ever - peacefully asleep, breathing smooth and gentle. He looked as if he might open those piercing blue eyes of his and quirk a smile up at him at any second. A variety of emotions fluttered their way through Jon's soul. "You always knew what to do. Always had a plan. Hard to believe we're the same age - you've done so much more than me. Come back to us, Mike." There was, of course, no response. Jon sighed and trudged up the stairs.

Saturday in the base, and he was trying not to mope while he waited on Bazooka and Brimstone. It wasn't working. The media had not been kind to him in the days since the news conference. He'd expected it from the Post-Intelligencer, which had never really taken him seriously; but the Times had usually cut him some slack. And the letter columns everywhere had been freaking out over Shadow-Force's dissolution. The kindest letter he'd seen had said, "We Seattlites have been spoiled in the super-team department the last fifteen years. Now we're back roughly to where we were before the Freedom Squad was formed. We should be grateful to still have one veteran hero patrolling the streets." (The veteran in question being Beta, of course...)

"Any changes, Alpha?" "I would have told you if there were." "Yeah." After another moody silence, Jon said, "You know, I've been wondering." "Yes?"

"What did Jessica do in between shooting me and leaving? I mean, it wouldn't make sense to shoot me if all she wanted to do was leave." "She ran to the Trophy Room and grabbed a disenchanted knife." "Huh? Disenchanted?" "Mystra assured us it had been." "Whose knife was that? Wait, I guess it wouldn't be Diabolus, I don't recall him using a knife... Ugh, that demonologist guy? Before my time?" "Seth-Amon, yes." "Wait, you mean the knife he used to, well, sacrifice people? Yuck!" "We prevented him from using it for that purpose, but yes." "What would she want with that thing? And how would she even think of it?" "I have no idea."

Jon sighed, dismissing the problem. "How're the plans coming for moving our stuff?" "I have narrowed it down to two or three options." "It'll probably take a month or so for Carlton to pull together their plans for this place, I'm guessing?" "Probably more like six weeks. I plan to be moved out at least fourteen days before then." "And Mike?" "I would imagine he will be moved relatively soon."

Jon changed the subject yet again. "I'm getting a lot better with my light-form." "That should be useful." "Not as much as you might think. Check it out." He shimmered, winking out for a moment and reappearing. "I've just patrolled the entire city. There's no crime going on - right this second."

"Ah. But you have no guarantee there won't be something a minute from now." "Exactly. Plus, when I do things this way, people don't see me flying around. They need to see their heroes." "That sounds accurate."

Jon frowned. "You sound a little 'off' today, Alpha. How're you holding up?" "I am an artificial intelligence. I am... fine." "Wait... Please don't be offended by this question." When there was no response, Jon asked hesitantly, "Are you saying you just fake emotions for the sake of humans?" "No. I am saying that I can suppress emotions that prove inconvenient." Jon sighed deeply. "Must be nice." "Yes."

"What about Beta? Is he OK?" "Beta's programming is not sophisticated enough to support complex emotions. He is fine." "Huh. That's a weird thought."

Alpha changed the subject smoothly. "We have received a letter from Shift, applying for membership on the team." "Shift?" "He applied for membership in the reserve team about the same time you did. He was rejected." "Well, that doesn't sound too encouraging." "It wasn't. We still have the tapes on file, if you wish." "Well, let's take a look..."

[The following is actually a vignette the GM got inspired to write up before the game. I think he really nailed Erebus' smartass attitude, and the Phantom's long-suffering tact. :) Naturally, from the security video Photon will only be able to see and hear what would be outwardly obvious. The events on tape would be a little more than a year old:]

The Security Video said:
"I'm sorry, but until you have better control of your powers, you will be in serious danger in a super combat."

"But...", the girl started.

"No. I can't, in good conscience, accept you as a reserve member with your current power set." The ghostly voice was firm, but regretful. "I don't want to have to inform your family that someone like Crosshair killed you."

"Even dead, I'd give him good odds against you." The larger man's voice was quiet and cold.

"Fine!" The young women the media dubbed 'Bubbles' jumped up. Turning, she stalked toward the door. The pair of heroes watched her leave, one darkly impassive, the other radiating a faint aura of compassion.

The Phantom sent to her, When you have better control, there is a place here for you. He observed wryly to himself, that the control needed was both of her powers and her emotions.

"Alpha, is that all of them?"

"There is one more." Despite being generated from a computer and broadcast through a small speaker, the voice clearly conveyed dubiousness.

"Send them in."

A few seconds later, a slender male figure trotted in. He was of average height and not very muscled. The rather ugly iridescent mask he wore drew the observer’s eye from his costume. Reviewing the surveillance footage later, the members of Shadow-Force noted it was a simple turtleneck and jeans, both black.

"Name and powers?" Erebus was getting impatient and started in with the questioning.

"I am The Mask!" His voice was slightly distorted by the named garb. Even so, both veterans wondered about the tone change. The Phantom wondered if he was still going through puberty. Erebus' thoughts, as always, were private.

"No. The Mask is a superhero on the East Coast. Furthermore, he is the third of that name. You will not gain any friends using that name." Erebus stated firmly.

"Um, OK, I can call myself Phase, 'cause I phase through stuff."

"I don't think that would be a good idea, either. Phaze is a rather nasty villain, who might just decide to kill you to keep his name exclusive," The Phantom recommended. Stretching his senses out, the ghostly hero noted that the as-yet-unnamed applicant had a good mental shield; probably from the mask.

"Oh." A pause, then, "How about Shift. Anyone got that?"

"No one by that name rates any news." Erebus then added, sotto voce, "Still."

Ignoring his companion's snarky comment, The Phantom started in again, "What are your powers? And how old are you?"

"I can phase through stuff."

"How old are you?"

Before Shift could answer, Erebus cut in with, "And?"

"And what?"

"What else can you do? Can you carry things into phase with you? Can you touch normal things while phased? Can you attack someone while phased? Do you have any other powers? Can you attack someone while in a normal state?" Erebus asked the questions quickly, not giving Shift much time to answer verbally.

The young applicant nodded to the second question, but shook his head to the next three. The last question got an indignant, "Hey! I've been studying Karate for a year now."

The older man, a victor of many brawls with super-powered foes, was temporarily bested by the sheer hubris of Shift.

Hoping to avoid an unpleasant confrontation between the two, The Phantom interjected, "How old are you?"


Erebus voiced his skepticism, "Uh-huh."

Watching Shift's body language, The Phantom decided to divert the conversation again, before an argument broke out. "Please demonstrate your power."

Shift concentrated for a second. In the corner of his vision, The Phantom saw Erebus wince. He agreed with the unspoken evaluation. Any competent villain would strike while Shift was activating his phase power.

Once he completed the activation, Shift proved that, yes, he could pass through any physical object without effect. After the demonstration, The Phantom requested Shift deactivate his powers. When he did so, the young man let out a grunt and bent slightly over.

"Are you all right?" The Phantom asked, concerned.

"Yeah", came the pained response. "It always hurts a bit when I come back to normal."

Erebus stated, "Your application has been rejected. Right now, you would be a liability to any group." While far more harsh then he would have said it, the psionic could not bring himself to disagree.

"Hey old man, I bet within a year, I could be totally kicking your butt."

Blinking several times, Erebus finally said, "Excuse me." He quickly got up and, with skilled grace of a martial artist, left the room. Closing the door did not completely suppress the derisive laughter that followed him.

Jerk. I'll bet he left just to make me end the interview, the remaining super thought to himself as he turned to the task of more politely declining Shift's application.
When the tape had finished playing, Jon said incredulously, "He actually SAID that? To EREBUS?" "Yes." "Wow. So much ego, for so little cause." "Yes. He does not seem likely to be useful." "You can say that again."

Alpha repeated obediently, "He does not seem likely to be useful." Jon paused, a little creeped out by that response. "Um, Alpha? Could you put a few more cycles into this conversation, please?" "As you wish." "What sort of contact info did he leave?" "A cell phone number." Jon face-palmed. "You have GOT to be kidding me." "No." "Even I know better than that."

"You surely don't actually plan to call him." "Actually, yes, I do. I mean, sure, he's an arrogant kid... But like Bill said, I need to make connections. I have to start somewhere, and who knows, he might be useful someday." "I think you are being far too optimistic." "You're probably right, but it costs me almost nothing to talk to him. Think of it as a long-shot investment."

Alpha stated, "You can handle anything that comes up without him." "Why do you say that?" "Because I wish you to feel confident."

Jon was about to be creeped out all over again, when he caught the note of dry humor in Alpha's voice. He laughed despite himself and shook a fist fondly at Alpha's nearest camera. "Jerk. Anyway, dial the number if you would."

Soon there came a teenage voice over Alpha's speaker, "Hi, this is Steve." Jon said sweetly, "Oh, really? I was calling for Shift." "Oh, uh, just a second. He's not here right now." Click.

Jon chuckled. "Who's the phone registered to?" "Heh. A David Fitzpatrick." "So... Steven Fitzpatrick. What can you tell me?" "What do you want to know?" "How old is he?" "Eighteen. Just graduated from high school." "Oh, so he isn't underage after all - this year." "Nope." "Is he enrolled in college?" "Not that I can tell." "How'd he do in school?" "Grades were... mediocre." "Any sports?" "None of record."

"Sounds like a real winner... I guess I'm supposed to call back?" "If you insist." This time the phone was answered by a deeper voice - doubtless muffled somewhat by the mask. "Hi. I'm calling myself Mirror Mask now, I decided 'Shift' was pretty dumb." "All right... Mirror Mask. This is Photon." "Oh - the guy who got my job." "...I beg your pardon?" "They picked you instead of me." "...So they did. Anyway..." "I can't figure out why they took you over me. I mean, I wouldn't get myself shot like that." Jon gritted his teeth and bit back a retort - someday, someday, he would live down his first day as a hero.

Mirror Mask said, "So when do I start?" "Start what?" "I assume I've got the job." "It isn't a 'job'. We don't get paid a salary." "Well, I mean, I assume I'm on the team." "Actually, I wanted to meet with you to discuss it further. That's by no means a foregone conclusion." "What, so you're in charge now?" "Basically, yes." "That sucks. Well, let's get it out of the way. How about eight o'clock?" Photon kept his cool with difficulty. Since he was expecting Bazooka and Brimstone at 7, he said, "Six thirty would work better." "Oh. Just a second, let me check..." Alpha to Jon: "Five bucks says he's asking his parents." "No bet."

"OK, six-thirty is fine." "See you then." Alpha ended the call and asked, "Why are you doing this to yourself?" "Well... Like I said, we need to make connections. If I can't put up with an annoying kid, I'm not going to get very far in that department." "Oh, I get it. It's like the psychological equivalent of plunging your fists into hot oil to get ninja super-powers, or whatever." "...If you say so. Besides, he might yet be useful someday. Beggars can't be choosers." "Hope really does spring eternal, I see."

A little while later, Mirror Mask swaggered into the base as if he owned it. He was a bit taller than he'd been last year, but had the same nondescript build. Also the same garish, iridescent, dully-reflective mask - a disturbing, almost demonic visage twisted into a grimace. The thing was so grotesque it distracted from the simple black turtleneck and jeans he wore. Photon invited him to sit. "Good to meet you, Steve." "...Who's Steve?" "You are, I would think. That's how you answered your cell phone." "Oh. I, uh, gave you my buddy's number. He's the one who answered the phone the first time." "Ah. I see."

The young man, eager to change the subject, looked around and said, "Cool place. When do I move in?" "I beg your pardon? We don't live in the base." Mirror Mask seemed genuinely surprised. "Really? Why not?" "We have jobs and families to attend to." And lives, Jon forebore from saying. "Well, yeah, but isn't it cooler to hang out here?" Photon didn't even bother dignifying that with a response. Instead, he asked brightly, "So, how old are you now?" "Almost 20." Jon sent to Alpha via radio, At least he's consistent in his lies. "Are you in college?" "Nah." "Planning to enroll?" "Not right now. Don't have the money." "Taken any more karate?" "No. I, uh, haven't managed to." Translation: Mom and Dad wouldn't pay for it any more. Alpha just snrked over the airwaves.

"Have your powers developed any since we interviewed you last year?" Mirror Mask puffed up his chest. "Yeah! I'm super-strong now!" "Really." "Yeah, I can pick up guys of any size." "So, we're talking maybe 250 pounds then?" "Yeah, about that." Photon said skeptically, "I don't know that I would exactly call that 'super'-strength. There are weightlifters who..." "With one hand!" "Ah." "I'll prove it!" The lad did indeed manage to pick up a large desk with only a grunt of effort. Given his build, it did seem likely he'd need powers of some sort to do it, but...

Photon asked, "How did you find out you can pick up people in particular?" "Oh, well, when I'm fighting guys, you know? I can even throw them!" "So you've been fighting crime on your own, then." "Sure! That's what superheroes do!" "Do you have any particular defenses against attack?" "I dodge and get out of the way!" "I see. Well, fighting supervillains isn't quite the same as fighting street toughs with knives and guns..." "Just knives so far, nobody's really shot at me yet." "Being shot at is a totally different thing," Photon warned him, "It's no laughing matter." "I guess you'd know, right? Sheesh, I can't believe they picked you."

Jon gritted his teeth and managed to say pleasantly, "Well, they did. What are you going to do when supervillains fire energy blasts at you?" "Like I said, dodge out of the way. How hard can it be?" "Harder than you think," Photon told him. Mirror Mask stood up. "Well, you fire blasts, right? Gimme your best shot!" Photon hesitated, knowing he could aim literally at the speed of light; Mask for his part saw fit to add, "Wimp!"

Manfully resisting the urge to punch a laser through the boy's torso, Photon let loose a low-wattage beam. Mirror Mask dodged, but still ended up with an inch-wide smoking hole in his turtleneck with angry red skin showing through. "OK, so you got me. Stings a little. But it's not so bad. I'm tough!" "That was a low-power blast." "Oh, c'mon. How bad can it be?"

"Pretty bad... Steve." "Stop calling me that!" "I don't like being lied to." "Whattaya mean?" "I know you're not 20." "Never said I was!" "Fine. I know you're not 19, either. You realize that when you called me with a cell phone, you handed me your name and address on a platter." After a pause, "I told you - it's my buddy." "Oh, I see. You give out your buddy's number so that when supervillains track it down, they kill your buddy instead of you. Your buddy who doesn't even have superpowers to protect himself." "Um."

Photon rose to his feet and said with dignity, "Well, it's been... interesting... talking with you, Mirror Mask." "So when do I start?" "If I feel I have need of your abilities, I'll be sure to let you know." "What, so you're not taking me?" "Not at this time, no." That set off a further storm of snarky protest, but Photon finally got him out the door. "OK, Alpha. I admit it. You were right. It did cost me something: Elevated blood pressure." Alpha said philosophically, "Hot oil hurts too. Soon, Grasshopper, you'll be tough enough to deal with the Silver Paladin." "Golly. Is he really that bad?" "Worse. His greatest power is super-annoyance."

Jon rolled his eyes and said, "Well... Beta and I had better map out a patrol plan." "He's still recharging. Wait until after Bazooka and Brimstone say goodbye?" "OK. ... It's not just our dear friend Steve, you know. I assume you've read the papers." "Yeah. That can't have been fun." "Nope."

Soon Bill and Liz arrived, popping in with the familiar smell of sulfur. After the initial greetings were out of the way, Jon told them, "You'd probably better see this." He handed Forestrike's letter to Brimstone. She raised an eyebrow, groaning at Forestrike's name. "It's your favorite person, honey." Bazooka took a look too. "Terrific. Jon, listen, if those three come to town, lie low. You're no match for them." Jon caught himself about to bridle (feeling uncomfortably like Mirror Mask) but only said, "I'll definitely bear that in mind."

Liz shook her head. "Not likely they will... Forestrike knows his limitations, and he also knows that he's classified as a terrorist now. He won't risk anything. Still... I'll be sure to set up a series of teleport coordinates on the way down to Phoenix." Bill asked Jon, "I suppose you just opened the letter right up, like he says?" "...Yes." The older man snorted. "Erebus would tear you a new one. That was pretty dumb."

Jon gritted out, "I wasn't exactly privy to the usual mail-opening procedure." (He'd never really received any mail, fan or otherwise.) Bill said coldly, "Erebus would've said it was common sense, and rapped you on the head." Jon took a breath, let it out. "I'll be more careful next time." Liz shot Bill a warning glance. "Well, the good news is that Forestrike is still making himself useful. Enjoying himself in the process, of course, but useful." Bazooka agreed, "He's never lied. His letters to the Phantom have always been on the level."

Jon: "Bill, he says straight up he lied to me once." "Oh, I don't doubt that at least one of his predictions is obscure to the point of near-uselessness. But it wouldn't give him the proper jollies to flat-out lie. It's too easy; he wants to demonstrate how clever he is." Liz nodded. "His last letter to Mike was in Shakespearean blank verse, and full of anagrams and acrostics. The one before that was in cipher." Jon pondered that, wheels turning. "Hmmm. Thanks, that actually does help. You know, there's one other thing in that letter that bothers me." "What's that?" Liz asked.

"That last line. 'You will need to save the world.' He doesn't say 'You will save the world,' or 'You need to save the world', or 'You must save the world.' He says, 'You will need to save the world.' It almost makes it sound as if I will need to save the world... in order to do something else." Bazooka groaned. "It makes my head hurt just thinking about it."

The talk turned to other subjects, reminiscing about the past, remembering old friends, especially those missing. Finally, the time came to say goodbye. Liz embraced Jon, getting a little teary-eyed. Bill shook his hand and gripped his shoulder, wishing him luck. With that, they were gone.

Jon sat for a long time, staring at his hands. Finally he said, "Alpha?" "Yes?" "If I start acting like I need to prove something to somebody, please give me a verbal slap upside the head." "OK, I think I can do that." "...Because it's really, really tempting right now." "That's very understandable, given the circumstances." "Yeah."

Jon then called, "Beta? Are you charged up?" "Not fully, but I am functional." "OK. Let's get to work." Spreading out maps of the Seattle area, they started dividing it up into patrol areas and shifts. Jon lost himself in the problem, forgetting his worries for a little while. Beta didn't have a job, wasn't bothered by the day/night cycle, and didn't need to recharge for as long as Jon needed sleep, so that made it easier to come up with a two-person plan than would otherwise have been the case. Still, it was a huge undertaking. Alpha requested that certain areas, where he anticipated Beta's charging station might be set up in the future, be left to his brother.

When they finally finished, Jon yawned. "Where does one go to apply for higher super-registration, anyway?" Alpha responded, "U.S. Marshal's office. Why, you planning to sign on the dotted line?" "Yeah. I don't see any reason why not. The Guardians already know my secret identity; at that rate the government might as well too." "You'll need to get the second level first - it's required to go in sequence." "That's fine. Maybe second will be good enough for what I need to do; we'll see. Good night, Alpha." "'Night."

On Monday, Jon threw himself into his teaching and research. Somehow he found it harder to lose himself in the wilds of loop quantum gravity than usual... He was dreading being out there alone and mostly without backup. He picked up a registration application in heroic identity (that caused a bit of a stir) and over the next few days touched base with a number of the Phantom's contacts on the police force. They were polite and friendly... but he could tell they didn't really take him seriously. As far as they were concerned, he was a fresh-faced rookie about to get himself killed. Doesn't anybody remember I've been doing this for a year? he thought. I've fought Diabolus himself! And Red Dragon! But always as just one face in a crowd.

By Wednesday evening, he was in a mood dark as the rainy night he flew through. He broke up some criminal activity just by shining a spotlight on people who didn't realize they were being observed; where necessary he broke things up with a volley of precisely-aimed laser beams or stunning jolts of electricity. Dull, really. On the one occasion somebody shot at him, his new dodge subroutine worked perfectly - his light-form activated for a sliver of a second, moving him several feet out of the line of fire at the ultimate speed. A bit of applied magnetism deprived the guy of his gun, and that was that.

Suddenly an enormous bolt of lightning streaked through the sky, striking the Space Needle in the distance. Jon flew over to see if it had been damaged. As he hovered there, his field sense went wild! An arc of lightning streaked toward him; his countermeasures subroutine dissipated most of its energy harmlessly before it got close, and then the dodge subroutine got him clear of the remainder. Even so, his left arm and side went all tingly. "Yipe!" Following the bolt's path with eyes and field sense to the ground, he caught sight of a garishly-clad fellow surrounded with a potent electrical field. Why do so few villains have any fashion-sense, he wondered? Is there some correlation between color-blindness and social maladjustment?

"Ha! Welcome to your DOOM, Photon!" Yep, villain. Photon sighed and said to himself, "Spider-Man would have something witty to say about now..." But nothing came to mind, so he just fired off a laser. It hit, of course - not many people can dodge faster than light - but did only superficial damage to the man's costume, improving it slightly.

They traded a couple more shots - the bad guy's went wide. Jon tried to find an opportunity to shift his attention to his invisibility sequence, but the guy wasn't giving him the chance. The villain declaimed, "Once I have destroyed Seattle's most notable remaining hero, this city will fall to its KNEES before me!" Most notable?! Does this guy read the papers? "Yeah, good luck with that, Sparky!" Hey, that's not bad.

"You face BOLT, do-gooder!" A particularly large bolt of lighting came Photon's way, but this time both his subroutines worked flawlessly. "Whatever, Sparky. Ooooh. Ow ow ow. Except so totally not. My turn!" This time he fired actinic brilliance at Bolt's eyes. The villain yelped in fear and staggered back toward a support pillar of the Space Needle, seeking shelter.

Photon quickly checked that he was out of communicator range, and took the opportunity to amp up his radio transmission to make up the deficit: Alpha, I'm facing an electricity-using villain by the Needle. Tell Beta... Wait, Beta was vulnerable to electricity. Tell him to standby. Notify the cops, and do whatever else is traditional - I'm busy. Alpha's digital voice as usual had a strange radio timbre: On it, Photon.

Jon didn't feel entirely comfortable zapping Bolt while the guy couldn't even see, but all's fair in love and war. He was about to switch over to his stun-zap, but remembered just in time that Bolt was probably immune. Lasers it is, then. He even angled them so as to knock the guy back into the support pillar he was next to. (Though he usually generated beams to appear from his hands, he really didn't need to do so - all positions and angles were equally easy.) "So how's that falling-to-its-knees thing working out for you, Sparky? Ready to give up?" "NEVER!" the man roared, shaking his head to clear it and diving behind the pillar.

Photon's field sense went into the red, then calmed down. He flew cautiously around the pillar, a laser routine primed to go, but Bolt was... gone. "Great! He teleported." Just then he had to dodge another lightning bolt from the open sky. "And he doesn't need to generate blasts from his hands either. Terrific. Well, two can play that game..." Photon concentrated for a moment, and willed himself into light-form.

As always, the world slowed to a stop as he rushed forward at the universe's maximum speed limit; everything was actinic blue, shifted toward the violet. Why can I see at all, he thought, that should be physically impossible. Oh well, I can. For now I've got Bolt to worry about...

Doing a spiral search pattern (creating and destroying microscopic black holes with half-conscious flickers of thought to change his direction when necessary) he quickly found Bolt in glowing blue still-life atop a nearby building. His costume looks so much better this way... Oh well. He spent a few subjective minutes deciding on the exactly-right spot to rematerialize, and even devoted a moment's thought to a witty remark while streaking circles around the man, but honestly that seemed a little petty.

Regaining solidity behind the villain, he said, "Surprise!" Bolt whirled, too slow. "Get ready to kneel, Pho-" Jon's laser caught him right in the face. Bolt went down writhing in pain, screaming about his eyes.

Jon winced. I hadn't meant to do that. He said quietly, "You're not in charge here, Bolt." He used a stunning jolt on the man to mercifully put him out before remembering that it used electricity... Bolt got back up. "Actually, that was quite a nice charge! Thanks!" Photon resisted the urge to face-palm; he's not only immune, he's an absorber! Two points for the snappy comeback, too.

Still, Bolt hadn't healed nearly enough. Another couple zaps and he went down for the count. Jon hovered there almost in disbelief, only lightly singed on his own part. "I did it. I really did it!" Sending via radio waves, Alpha, I did it! Congratulations, Photon! Welcome to the big leagues. Guide me to the nearest precinct, would you? Sure thing!

The desk sergeant perked up at the sight of Photon's burden. "Oho! That Bolt fellow who skipped bail in the Big Apple, is it?" "He's a New York villain?" "Sure is, the FBI and the BSA circulated bulletins about him. You'll be glad to know we can lock him up on plenty of stuff from back east." [Jon couldn't testify in court as "Photon", so unless there were any witnesses to the battle, Bolt would walk for the stuff he did that night. Of course, once Jon's new registration goes through, that'll be another story. Oh, and the BSA is the Bureau of Superhuman Affairs.]

"Huh. Why on earth would he come all the way out here to the West Coast?" The man's voice got harder. "The vultures are starting to circle." Jon nodded somberly. "Well, this one didn't find any meat, anyway." "That he didn't. Thanks to you, Photon." Jon walked out, chin held high. It was a warm flight home, despite the rain.

The next day, Jon found that a few people had indeed witnessed the fight; it made page 3 in both the big papers. The Post-Intelligencer couldn't resist a touch of snark about his youth and inexperience, but even they had to admit he'd done his job. The Times was more neutral, stating the facts as they stood. Over the next few days, the cops let Photon know that Bolt had spilled his guts - swearing revenge on him, the usual - and was being shipped off to Stronghold. (Apparently, he'd believed a New York villain could take out any hero from a hick town.)

Brimstone called the next day to get the details and congratulate him on his first solo super-battle. That pleased him more than anything else. Jon leaned back in his office chair, feeling fine.

No need to get cocky, Jonathan Winters, he chided himself. All the same, you did pretty good. "Thanks, guys," he said the uncountable photons streaming through the air around him, and they actually 'blushed' - redshifting to surround him with a warm, rosy glow. If the fabric of spacetime could purr, it would be purring, Jon felt.

"Awww. The universe likes me. Who cares what some newspaper thinks, anyway?"

[Jon has historically been more inclined to Blue-Boy-Scoutish dialogue like "Halt, evil-doer!" or "Crime does not pay!" than Spidey-like snark... but what can I say, he was in a MOOD that night. :) I think this sort of thing will definitely become part of his style.]

The Shadow

Photon's Origin and Previous Exploits

[Here's what I wrote up on Photon before the game started. Everything here is a recap of what actually went down in the original campaign, barring a few cosmetic changes, up to the point where he got shot by Jessica. (That bit really did happen, but everything after it is new.)]

Jonathan Winters leaned back in his office chair. Life was good. He had his dream job: Professor of theoretical physics, and at a strikingly young age. Challenging research in loop quantum gravity. (String theory, he liked to say, was "Brilliant, beautiful, and wrong".) Students who were sometimes exasperating but on the whole rewarding to teach. (Dr. Winters was a mildly popular physics lecturer at UW.)

He gazed out the tentative spring sunshine, both admiring its beauty and wondering, as ever, just how it worked. He let his mind run idly, as it often did, over Einstein's thought experiments, trying to imagine what life would look like from a photon's point of view... The universe frozen in time, all space compressed into a point of blazing light. To a photon, everything really was one.

Going deeper, he pressed his imagination to incorporate his insights into the shifting loops of spacetime he studied. The lonely, microcosmic photons refracted into each other, overlapping and dancing...

For just a second, something broke in Jon's mind, and he GOT it. For an instant he saw how it all worked; the true universe in all its silent splendor. The moment faded as quickly as it came, and Jon knew that he'd spend the rest of his life trying to capture that vision in inadequate equations. A deep joy bubbled up in him and he laughed aloud, reaching for his computer to try with happy futility to record the vision in mathematical terms.

After several hours of work, the sun shifted onto his screen, blinding him with its glare. He reached over absentmindedly to pull the blind, when suddenly the sun went out. Blinking, he looked over in shock. The sun was shining, yes, but very dimly. He stood up in alarm, and the effect vanished; the sun was bright as ever. He sat back down limply; dim again.

At this point, he got suspicious and started moving a pencil around, watching its shadow. Sure enough, there was a place where the shadow just plain veered off in an impossible direction - as if the light were being diverted somehow. While he was pondering this miracle, there came a knock at the door. "Dr. Winters?" Jon, sighed, recognizing the voice - a student who was hopelessly behind and couldn't seem to grasp that you couldn't do well in physics without knowing algebra. The door opened, and the hapless young man looked right at him. "Huh. And it's his office hour, too."

Jon was about to call after him, puzzled, when he noticed his hand fading back into visibility. Shaking, he experimented further.

He could create and banish light at will. He could cause it to flow around his body, rendering himself invisible. With some mental effort, he could make a laser beam. That was crazy enough, but then he had a weird idea and tried to imagine a mechanism for seeing in the infrared - and could. Or through walls. Somehow, the photons were responding to his will.

Thankfully, he had no more classes that day. He developed a feel for what he was doing. It was as if subatomic reality had gotten to know him, just as he'd gotten to know it, and decided it liked him. If he could imagine something for light (and to a lesser degree, other subatomic particles) to do in enough physical detail, generally it would happen. The feel of it was somewhere halfway between making a friend and programming a computer - the spacetime continuum was very literal-minded, if eager to please.

What to do with this amazing ability? Write a paper? Back it up with proof? Wouldn't Jenkins over at Princeton turn green with envy! But no. There were better uses for such power as this. Jon thought inevitably of his other childhood love, after mathematics: Comic books.

With great power came great responsibility. He could use this power to help people. And Seattle had only recently gained a hero team of its own - Shadow Force. They'd put out a call for heroes to join them a few months back, and Jon had followed their exploits with interest and a certain guilty pleasure. The names rolled off his tongue: The Phantom. Erebus. Technoid. X-97. Bazooka. Brimstone. Why not... Photon?

He closed his eyes and imagined a suitable costume: Gold and white with red accents, and a flowing red cape. On the chest the Feynman diagram for a photon - a wavy line and the Greek letter 'gamma'. No spandex please, he didn't exactly have bulging thews, something more comfortable... When he opened his eyes, he wasn't too surprised to find himself wearing it, and laughed aloud for sheer pleasure.

The next day he walked to the Shadow Force base. On the way he discovered he could fly.


The Phantom and Erebus were perplexed by him. He had power, all right - and he seemed to get better as they watched - but he was hopelessly idealistic and green as sprouting grass. They came up with the idea of matching him with some other newbie heroes in the area and calling them the 'reserve team'.

Photon got an object lesson his very first day, getting sprayed with machine gun fire while trying to stop a bank robbery. (Memorable quote: "Evildoers, you face Photon!" "Photon, meet M16.") Turned out his 'force field' hadn't been as well-tuned against physical objects as he'd thought... this would take work. (After he got out of the hospital, of course...)

He found his feet as a hero some months later, when the Guardians put out a quiet call for supers with backgrounds in theoretical physics. Volunteering, he found that scientists in certain disciplines were being kidnapped by a group calling themselves the Covenant, and put himself on the line to be next. Spirited away to a base in the South Pacific and made to work on villainous projects, Jon was instrumental in bringing the place down, and without compromising his secret identity. (Save to a fellow kidnap victim, a Korean mathematician named Kim Hei Ryung. Memorable quotes: "Who do you think you are, one of those weirdos in tights?" "Um." Later, when in danger with her: "You know how you asked me if I was one of those weirdos in tights?" "Yeah?" "Well, I, uh... am." *flies her past danger*)

The seasoned heroes of Shadow-Force tacitly accepted him as one of their own after that, and he played a minor but important role in two of their biggest battles - against the evil archmage Diabolus and against the criminal mutant mastermind Red Dragon - as well as a number of lesser ones. (Funny quote: "Wow! He must couple with the virtual gluon field to do that!" Erebus: "SHUT UP AND SHOOT HIM!" :)

Jon is very shy and socially awkward. (He's been dating Hei off and on - she's been transferred into the area - but of course she had to ask him out.) His Photon identity is a way for him to let a more flamboyant (and, let it be said, a bit pompous) side out. He continues to develop his power, and there does not seem to be any maximum limit... He appears to be limited only by his imagination and his will.

Being struck by Jessica's darkbolt wrought a change in Jon's powers, a sudden deepening. He had long been able to take on a form of pure light, travelling at c. But suddenly he found that he could control it to a much greater extent - he could change direction, for example (creating and destroying microscopic black holes in order to do so!), and even turn it on for only tiny slivers of a second. What's more, he could "edit" his human form back to health while immersed in the cosmos. Bullets don't concern him much any more - he can dodge out of the way literally at the speed of light, and heal any damage rapidly even if one should hit.

Going it alone in Seattle, with Beta and whoever else might turn up, terrifies Jon. He's no tactician like Erebus, no planner and schmoozer like the Phantom. Despite his fear, though, he's determined to make it work. Where will it all lead?

The Shadow

Jon's Backstory

[The previous post was what I knew about Photon long before the current game started. Here's some stuff on his past, that I wrote up recently. (He'd always been a supporting character, so I never came up with a detailed backstory until recently.) I've snipped a few hook suggestions that the GM may or may not do anything with.]

Jon was born into an upper-middle class family in Oklahoma, the Clarks (Jack and Patricia). Things were pretty good for him in his early years; he read voraciously and began to show signs of a formidable intellect. But when he was seven years old, his parents experimented with cocaine and became hardcore addicts. Things rapidly spiralled down into a nightmare; his parents got more and more involved in illegality, losing most of their money.

The life of the family finally unravelled with both his parents were imprisoned for drug dealing and manufacture. Jon, along with his sister Cindy (three years younger) and brother Jason (five years younger), were placed in foster care. He was nine years old at the time.

Already traumatized by his parents' spectacular fall, Jon only withdrew into himself more as he bounced from one foster home to another. On a couple occasions where no foster family was available, he even spent short stints in a juvey facility, even though he'd done nothing wrong. (I regret to say that this actually happens to such kids.) The foster parents he stayed with varied from decent to uncaring to mildly abusive (mostly verbally), though most were better than his birth parents. He didn't see his siblings much.

Luckily, he finally found a stable home with the Winters, a kindly blue-collar couple (Tom and Alice) who adopted him when he was thirteen. Though he was too intelligent to have done less than adequately in school up to that point, he soon began to leave every school curriculum within reach in the dust. He skipped a grade, then another. Already alienated from his peers, this did nothing to endear him further.

The Winters family had one natural child, a daughter named Michelle who was a year younger than Jon. There were also a few other adopted foster kids - Dustin, a sullenly angry youth a couple years older; Karen, a quiet girl the same age; and Barry, a painfully hyperactive boy a couple years younger. (Barry and Karen were already there when Jon arrived; Dustin came shortly after.) Jon also saw Cindy and Jason once or twice a year.

The family was loving, though definitely not without frictions and even tragedy. Dustin resented Jon's academic success as he resented just about everything else; in his late teens he had several brushes with the law (assault charges) though he has since straightened out and is being groomed to take over Tom's general-contractor business.

Barry (who is black) was friendly to all when he could stop bouncing off the walls. His infectious friendliness has served him in good stead as a salesman; after Jon, he is the most financially successful of the family, and probably the happiest.

Michelle oscillated between phases of resenting her brothers and appreciating them. (One of the few things the three young men could agree upon was to protect her fiercely from all comers. Though Jon, for his part, wasn't much of a threat to bullies, he spoke up for her and used a needle wit on her behalf at times.) She and Karen were quite close, though, bosom companions. Michelle is now happily married and a housewife with kids.

Karen sank deeper and deeper into depression despite the Winters' best efforts and committed suicide at the age of sixteen. This tragic event drew the makeshift family together and welded them into one.

None of the Winters know about Jon's powers, and he has no intention of telling them. Dustin, in particular, might find this "unfairness" to be the last straw. (Though in fairness to him, he's grown a lot. Perhaps it wouldn't matter as much to him as Jon fears.)

As for Jon's biological siblings, Cindy and Jason, they have both turned to petty crime (drugs, mostly) and are both in prison - Cindy in Oklahoma and Jason in Colorado. Jon visits them when he can, though they have little to say to each other.

Jon did his undergraduate work in physics at CalTech on a full-ride scholarship, and got his doctorate from the University of Michigan. His dissertation on loop quantum gravity made a major splash in the literature, and got him lucrative job offers from a number of universities. He settled down as a full professor at the University of Washington in Seattle at the tender age of 22. (He is now 25 years old.)

Jon does volunteer work in Seattle youth shelters and juvenile facilities. Though he's very awkward and shy, he's also sincere and has been through the same wringer they have; some kids warm up to him. Others have tried to scam him, but he's not easy to fool.

The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files

Setting info can now be found here. Enjoy!

I've also posted the link at the top of the thread.
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The Shadow

3 - Stone of Night

[Good news! We got our game on Wednesday, so I'll put up another old session a bit early.]

[A new update with plenty of action! Also an introduction to Jon's workplace. I'll be putting up a post on the NPC's there soon.]

Photon spent an uneventful couple weeks dealing with the usual two-bit hoods, spiced up with the occasional thug upjumped with a bit of super-weaponry - nothing he couldn't handle.

During this time he admitted to Alpha, "My conscience is bugging me about Mirror Mask." "Wow, you ARE a glutton for punishment." Jon sighed. "He isn't even registered, which means the cops are going to be after him before long. He's going to get himself killed, or else land in jail for a really long time. He's just a kid. I should have said something." "Bluntly put, he's a dumb kid. There isn't much you can do to protect him from himself." "Yeah, but what I can do, I should. Call Steve's number again, will you?" "I salute you, sir. You are a braver and better man than I." "Man?" "OK, sophont, happy now?"

The call was made. When Jon said, "I'd like to speak to Mirror Mask, please," the boy's voice betrayed distinct nervousness. "Uh, yeah, I'll get him on the line. Wait a minute." Soon the teen hero's arrogant voice asked, "So you changed your mind and want me now, huh?" Maybe they really weren't the same person after all. "No. I just wanted to remind you that legal crimefighting requires registration with the government. The fighting you described yourself as doing at our last meeting will get you in very serious trouble with the police if you don't register." The boy blustered at him extensively, but Jon, reading between the lines, gathered that he might well actually follow through. (Admitting as much to an 'old' authority figure was out of the question, of course.) Jon, encouraged, also advised, "You might want to look into some body armor as well," but that suggestion got completely blown off. After a thoroughly exasperating conversation, Jon finally hung up with a sigh. "How annoying." "Hot-" "Oil. Yeah, sensei, I know."

Alpha changed the subject. "Lots of traffic about you on the 'Net lately." "I've seen some. Most of the Shadow-Force sites are writing me up more extensively. I try not to think about it." "Yeah, but I thought you'd like to know some of the wider-circulation stuff is kind of encouraging." "Oh?" "Yeah, you're picking up cred on some of the super-buzz blogs. They, uh, didn't expect you to last this long." "...I suppose you could call that encouraging." "Bit of a debate on your fight with Bolt on a forum, too." "You're kidding! That was a page 3 local story on a slow news day!"

"Trust me, Photon, these guys will dissect anything. They're obsessed." "True... What're they debating?" "Some are reassessing their opinion of you. I mean, sure, Bolt has never remotely been an A-list villain, but the eyewitness accounts suggest you more or less curbstomped him." "And the others?" "They say it's just a matter of rock-paper-scissors. Right powers for the job." Jon shrugged. "They're both right, really. Bolt would've had a hard time hurting me with his power suite." [The GM forgot how Half-Effect Immunity worked. He'd intended Bolt to be a challenging but beatable opponent, but Photon's half-Immunity to electricity was more powerful than he'd thought.] "Still, a reputation is a handy thing at times." "Sure, but let's face it, mine has nowhere to go but up. I imagine I'm still in the top five on the 'Most Embarrassing First Outing' list?" Alpha sighed. "Yeah. Not likely to budge any time soon, either." Jon shrugged helplessly. "It's the Internet. Best not to get too worked up either way. Thanks for the heads-up, though." "Free o' charge."

Heading in to work, Jon ducked his head in his RA's office and greeted Gerhard. "Hey Jerry, where's Hu?" "Hey. He won't be in today. Called and said he wasn't feeling well." "All right. How's that Calabi-Yau simulation coming along?" "Bit of a bear, but I'll have it for you next week." "Great."

Jon went out to lunch with his friend and colleague Karen, who warned him straight-up, "I'll be terrible company today. I'm really stressed out." "No Great Debate today, eh?" "String theory vs. your pipe-dream can wait. It's Jim I'm worried about." Karen's fourteen year old son. "I'm listening." It developed that Jim was being furtive and less communicative and more surly than usual. "I'm worried he's doing drugs or something, but I don't know what to do." "Well, does Stan see the same behavior when Jim's over there?" That set her off on a rant about her drunken, good-for-nothing ex-husband, which Jon waited through patiently.

On his way out after lunch, he noticed Gerhard's girlfriend Melissa at a nearby table, scribbling furiously on a pad. Come to think, he'd noticed her out of the corner of his eye on the way here too. "Hi, Melissa. How's it going?" The young woman started as if given a shock. "Oh! Uh, hi, Dr. Winters." "Sorry to startle you." "No... no, it's OK. I'm just... taking notes for a paper." "In shorthand?" "Sure! Keeps me in practice. Uh, how's Jerry doing?" "He's fine. Hard at work on a computer simulation for me." "That's good. That's... good. Oh, look at the time! I should be going." Jon stared after her as she hurried out. "Huh." He put it out of his mind and returned to his research.


A few days later, Photon was doing another nighttime patrol when he heard over the police band that there was a robbery in progress at the Museum of History and Industry. He started heading over there when he heard 'Code 999' invoked. Superhuman involvement. Jon's heart beat a little faster and he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I can do this," he told himself, and informed Alpha of the situation. [He didn't inform the cops he was coming, as at his registration level he's a civilian. Technically they could charge him with obstruction of a police investigation if they were feeling mean.] Where's Beta? A few minutes away, and he's busy. Got it.

Arriving at the museum, there were multiple cop cars with lights flashing and lots of cops with guns out. Also a couple ambulances further off, with a number of people on stretchers. Photon studied the situation and alighted next to the guy who looked to be in charge.

The man whirled on him with his gun, then relaxed at the last second. "...Sorry. Bad day." "I hear that. Any way I can help, officer?" The man nodded and stuck out his hand. "Lieutenant Sherman. Actually, yes. We think we know who's in there, but if we're right, getting him out is going to be a bitch." Photon shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. Who?" "Enigma. The MO fits - glowing runes and all that. He's already paralyzed several of my men. Nothing lethal yet, though." Photon nodded grimly - Enigma was a slippery one, he'd managed to get away from the Phantom and Erebus on a memorable night. "Well, for starters, I can scope the situation for you - confirm it's him and if there's any hostages or the like." "Go for it. We need all the info we can get." "Coming up..."

Photon winked out, then streaked at the speed of light up the steps leading to the main entrance. Should only take a microsecond at most...

...Or not. He got a rude surprise, abruptly shifting back to human form and landing heavily on the stone steps before he could react, getting the wind knocked out of him. He scrambled to his feet desperately and dove out of line of sight from the door. There he crouched under a window, trying to breathe, when he realized he could still hear radio. He sent on the police band, Apologies for interrupting, but this is Photon. I've hit a snag, at least some of my powers have been drained. There was a momentary silence over the band, then someone offered, "Getting the Lieutenant on the line." Sherman then said, "Photon, you need us to get you out of there?" Photon: Not yet, hold tight. Then, on Alpha's frequency, What's Beta's ETA? He's on his way. Call it two minutes. Got it.

Just then a cultured, faintly Germanic voice called from the shadows beyond the museum's entrance. "Photon, is that you?" Feigning nonchalance, the hero replied, "Hey Enigma, been a while. How's it going?" while also saying on the police band, It's Enigma all right. "You'll be very proud of me, I think. Here I've gone and adopted the scientific method. I'm doing a field test on a new piece of equipment." "Hey, that's great. Next thing you know, you'll be on the cover of Popular Pseudo-Science." Enigma didn't dignify that with a retort. "Hiding, are we?" "Just being prudent. I notice you're staying back in the shadows yourself."

"That's because I'm not particularly fond of being shot at. Let's cut to the chase, shall we? You've lost your powers, haven't you?" "Maybe, maybe not. You be the judge." In fact, Jon was frantically testing his powers as he bantered with the man. He couldn't generate visible light of any kind, or turn invisible, or see through the museum's wall. He couldn't take light-form - his dodge subroutine was not just offline, it was just plain gone. Countermeasures was still up, though. He could still fly (that was based on gravitics), could hear and send radio, and he could make sparks jump between his fingers and generate infrared. Nothing to test magnetism on, but the result seemed clear: It was a themed suppression against powers based on "light" as commonly thought of, not electromagnetic radiation as such. It's magic, Jon thought, it doesn't have to make sense.

"Come, come. You'd have charged in here by now if you still had them. My hypothesis was correct." "That always gives a guy a warm fuzzy feeling, doesn't it?" "And if you're counting on your robotic friend, let's just say I have a surprise in mind for him as well." "Well, shucky-darns, you just think of everything, don't you?" Jon was rapidly considering his options as he spoke. Without my light-form dodging, I'm a sitting duck - a guy in a sedentary profession with minimal combat training. I'm gonna have to hit him hard and keep him off-balance. He thinks I'm helpless, so that'll help...

"I do try. And so adieu for now, hero. I trust you won't be giving me much grief in the future." Jon said, "You know, you're absolutely right." Enigma paused. "...I am?" Photon burst into motion, flying around the corner, frantically spying out the man and unleashing a stunning wave of electricity. Enigma flinched as it ripped through his body, and Jon told him, "Sure. No reason for me to give you grief once you're back in Stronghold."

As supervillains went, Enigma was a snappy dresser; he sported a sweepy midnight-blue robe and cowl, with various enchanted ornaments about his person. The sorcerer rattled off a brief incantation and gestured peremptorily with a wooden wand, flaring a rune into being; flames engulfed Jon but his countermeasures dissipated the worst of it. Photon replied with a straight-up lightning bolt with enough crackling power behind it to do Bolt proud, but one of the mage's amulets lit up and absorbed the bolt into itself. "You're a man of unexpected depths, Photon. This might turn out to be an interesting day after all."

"Oh, I hope so. Wouldn't want you to perish of ennui. Don't worry, you'll soon be having those stimulating prison conversations again." They traded a couple more shots, Jon switching back to his stun-zap as it seemed to be working better. Enigma ducked behind a massive wooden cabinet with metal fittings, starting in on an ominous-sounding chant; Photon grinned tightly to himself as he used magnetic fields to tip it over on the guy.

That got a definite reaction, a pained angry yelp. There came a flare of red light, and the cabinet flew off Enigma and toward Photon, but luckily the electromagnetic hero was able to dodge out of the way at an unlikely angle. Thank goodness my flight still works!

Enigma picked himself up painfully off the floor, too enraged to speak. He snarled out an incantation and made a slashing gesture with his hand - a wave of magical force took the life momentarily from Photon's limbs. Limping toward him, Enigma grabbed him by the throat and shoved him against a wall, still incoherent with rage. Photon did the only thing he could think of - he shot Enigma in the back with a lightning bolt out of thin air.

The wizard groaned in agony and released Photon, limping toward a passage going deeper into the museum. "It would seem the Stone of Night is more limited than I had thought. I will think well on this." Photon pulled himself together and gave pursuit, following Enigma into an area devoted to pre-Columbian history. Several display cases had been jimmied open and rummaged through; Enigma was pocketing a carved lump of obsidian when Jon entered. In his other hand he held an intricate crystalline device that looked to be Atlantean, though Jon couldn't imagine it belonging to the museum.

The two duelled in silence now, too worn out with their struggle to waste breath on words save for exclamations of pain or effort or, in Enigma's case, whispered phrases of magical power. Photon tried changing up his attacks, throwing a searing blast of heat into the mix, but still seemed to get the best results from his stun-zap so he pressed it mercilessly.

Finally Enigma said shakily, "Well, Photon, it's been fun, but I should be going. Another day, yes?" Jon wheezed out, "Aw, must you? Always a pleasure." He tried to stun the guy again, getting a groan out of him, but the mage's spell still succeeded. On a deep instinctive level, Jon to his surprise felt the fabric of spacetime wrenched apart as Enigma teleported out.

Photon felt his powers return at once. He stood there quaking for a moment with pain and the sudden aftermath of adrenaline, then fled into the welcoming arms of his light-form. 'Editing' his body back to full health in a frozen instant, he took the opportunity to survey the museum carefully before notifying the cops. Enigma had rummaged through several display cases; they were in such disarray that it was hard to tell what was missing. He had taken at least three objects: The piece of obsidian, a stone axe, and a brooch made of lapis lazuli. Pity we didn't fight in the Industry portion of the museum, Jon mused to himself, there would've been a lot of opportunities there.

Reforming outside the museum, Jon let the cops know what had happened. After an intensive debriefing, they asked him to get out of the way of their work, so he flew off. [SP had to use GM Fiat twice to keep Enigma from being knocked unconscious, and I had to spend a hero point once to do the same. I also surged once during the fight and did an instant counter. Hard fought!]


After a sound night's sleep and a good day's work, Jon found both major papers had written up the fight, and both reasonably well. [SP: "The P-I doesn't think much of you, but they're not so blatant as to run 'Threat or Menace?' headlines." :)] The cops Jon had worked with spoke well of him, in particular. Alpha let him know a reporter had called wanting an interview with him. "Who's he with?" "Nobody. He's a freelancer, name of Chris Perkins." "What's he want to talk about?" "The fight with Enigma, he says." "Wow, pretty fast." "Yeah, sounds like he also wants to do a general piece on Shadow-Force and, well, you know." "Yeah. ... Well, tell him I'll meet him in the park tomorrow at, oh, 5 PM." "You're on."

That night's patrol was uneventful, and Photon met the man on schedule the next day. After the usual pleasantries and puff questions, the guy got down to business: "How do you feel about the breakup of Shadow-Force?"

Jon replied forthrightly, "It's a painful thing. When you work closely with people, putting your life on the line with them, you develop a bond fast. I was only part of the team for a year, but we're close." "Do you feel betrayed by your teammates?" "No, not at all. Bazooka and Brimstone are good friends, and leaving was their call to make. I wish them the best."

Perkins then slipped in the hot question: "What about Technoid? What is his status currently?" Jon hesitated just a moment, then said, "Technoid has effectively retired from the hero business." He couldn't keep a trace of bitterness out of his voice, and Perkins jumped on it: "What exactly do you mean by 'effectively' retired?" "I've said all I'm going to say on that topic. It's his story to tell." "Very well."

To his credit, Perkins actually dropped the matter, moving into more recent events: "Tell me about your fight with Enigma two days ago." Photon said, "I had a healthy respect for him going in; I knew he'd managed to give the Phantom and Erebus the slip previously. And he did manage to catch me by surprise early in our fight, but I was able to adapt. It was a hard-fought battle; he did manage to escape but I don't think he'll feel inclined to brag about it. He was in a pretty bad way when he teleported out."

Perkins asked further questions to draw him out, but Jon was careful not to reveal too much about his powers and capabilities. No sense advertising to every villain who reads the papers...

The next day, the story appeared in the Post-Intelligencer. It has been carefully edited to make him look like a wishy-washy incompetent buffoon. (The piece also appeared, relatively uncut and positive, in an Olympia newspaper.) Jon stated to Alpha, seething, "I assume you've read the papers." "Yeah. Uh. I mean no offense, but you might want to study some of the Phantom's interviews." "I'll consider that. When I'm not furious." "Good call." "I keep reminding myself that it's not Perkins' fault, he didn't edit it. But dangit, he must've known what they'd do." "Let it go, Jon. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. Even Mike had bad press days." "Yeah."

Alpha paused uncomfortably. "Uh, there's a Captain Struthers from the cops on the phone wanting to talk to you. He's the guy in charge of liasing with capes. And he sounds upset. This a bad time?" Jon took a deep breath, let it out. "Put him on the line."

The man jumped in without pleasantries. "I've got three of my men in the hospital with runes all over their bodies. They won't do or say anything except, 'Photon, I want to talk to you.' You got any ideas about this?" Photon sighed. "Enigma. Sounds like he's sending me a message in his own special way." "And my men have to suffer for it, huh?" "I'll see what I can do for them, Captain. I'm sorry your men were involved in this. Give me a minute?"

To Alpha, "Do we have any way to contact Mystra?" "Yeah, she left us an enchanted signaling device. It's a glorified stick; you basically have to break it." "Where is it?" Hunting through the confusion of stuff packed up for moving, Jon finally dug up the stick and broke it without further ceremony.

He felt a mental presence, and a voice in his head saying, "Yeah?" "Uh, hi. This is Photon." "This isn't the best time, man. I'm on my vision quest and the juices are flowin'." "Yes, well, I'm very sorry to bother you, but Enigma's cursed some people again." He explained the situation. "Far out! But no worries, man, it'll wear off in a few days. That's the downside to Enigma's shtick." "All the same, I think it would be greatly appreciated if you could dispel it now."

After a little more buttering up, Mystra heaved a martyred sigh. "All right, all right." POOF! There she was. Jon called the Captain back, and he met them at the hospital. After a curt admonition to the captain to "chill out" Mystra examined the three men. "Looks simple enough." Photon asked, "Any way you can trace it back to Enigma?" She shook her head. "Nah. That's the benefit of his brand of magic - his runes have no connection to him once they're active." A few short spells later, and the three policemen were fine. "Try some paint thinner next time, all right? Sheesh!" Photon told her, "Thank you so much, Mystra. Oh, and here," he handed her the broken stick, "I imagine you'll want to re-enchant this." Mystra accepted it. "Sure, man. I'll get it back to you in a few days." "Thanks." "...Might be a week or two, actually." "Whenever you have time." "Yeah, no rush, right? Stay cool!" She poofed out again and Captain Struthers rolled his eyes. "I suppose I should be glad she didn't call me a 'pig'. That got old forty years ago."

Photon laughed. "I imagine it would have. Now... I need to figure out how to handle Enigma." "What're you going to do? He hasn't left a return address, and I don't care to see any more of my men used as game pieces." "I intend to do a little skywriting, if the city won't mind." Struthers blinked. "I suppose that'll work. If anyone tries to give you trouble for it, they'll answer to me. It won't be permanent or anything?" "No. My thanks, Captain."

Returning to the base, he placed a call to Moke. Explaining his situation, he said, "Can you give me any backup?" Portland's hero of the common man pondered. "Silver Siren can be there in an hour; the rest of us would have to wait until morning. That good enough?" "Siren's the one I was hoping for, in fact. She's got just the power I need." "She'll be on her way."

By that time it was 3 PM. Jon spent the next hour with Alpha poring over maps, picking a suitably isolated spot out of town. (Unfortunately, meeting him at the base was out of the question - most of the defense grid had already been taken offline. Laid out by Erebus and designed by Technoid, the base was a veritable killing field when it was active.) [I vividly recall the GM, and everyone else, staring wide-eyed at Erebus' player as he explained his detailed defense plans. They were... breathtakingly ruthless. :)] Then they tossed ideas around about how to give Enigma the message without attracting every reporter, thrillseeker, and curious bystander in the Sea-Tac area. Finally Jon flew high into the sky and grimly projected the following message in towering letters of golden light:


Silver Siren arrived by 4, and Jon briefed her quickly. "Your specialty is sound, right? Have you got something that'll let me project my voice to emerge from a hologram?" Siren snapped her fingers. "That easy." "Great! This should be an interesting conversation."

Flying to the distant meadow with Beta and the armored heroine, they began preparing feverishly. Beta was set up in a suitable hiding spot, and Siren quickly kludged up a little ventriloquism device for Jon. He produced a hologram of himself, turned invisible, and practiced making it move and talk convincingly with Siren's advice and help.

Unfortunately, Enigma teleported in at 5:30. Siren cursed and dove for cover, but was spotted. "Tsk, tsk," the sorcerous villain chided, "Setting up an ambush? I'm disappointed in you, Photon." Jon had the hologram fold its arms. "Says the guy who uses innocent people to send his messages." Enigma paused, and said with some indignation, "Innocent? They took Caesar's salt, they swore the sacramentum - they are anything but innocent." Taking another step forward, smiling and collected once more, the wizard asked, "Do I need to explain the historical reference?" "You may consider me to be sufficiently educated to get it, thanks."

Enigma changed the subject, stepping a little closer again. "The electricity was unexpected. How did you work it, anyway?" Photon advised him, "Crack a physics book sometime. You'll find it educational." "Oh, no doubt. But I've come prepared this time - I've brought a charm against lightning. Do you think you can still take me?" "Only one way to find out, don't you think?" "Oh, indeed. ... Pity Erebus isn't around any more. I'd intended the Stone of Night to be my trump card against him." Now that he was within twenty-five feet or so of the hologram, it faded out. Jon, speaking from his real location above and behind Enigma, said, "And it looks like you just lost your bid!" He shot the mage in the back with a blast of numbing cold.

Enigma gasped in pain and amazement and whirled, searching the sky. With genuine admiration, he said, "An illusion! And a good one, too! Oh, Photon, if you weren't so much the scientist, that creativity would be the making of a master wizard." He didn't let his compliment stop him from firing a livid green curse at the spot he'd last heard Photon's voice from, though.

Jon evaded it easily - sniping from outside the range of the Stone of Night, he could take light-form freely. "Hey thanks! It's always nice being complimented by supervillains." After firing off another cold blast, he added, "I mean, you guys should really be able to judge, right? You get beat up by heroes so often, you must be regular connoisseurs of beatdowns."

By this time, Beta and Siren were flying to join battle. Enigma snarled and said, "You haven't beaten me yet!" He held up the Atlantean device that Jon had seen before; it was whirring and chiming, then suddenly emitted a sweet PING!

The effect was instantaneous: Beta crashed to the ground and lay still. Siren for her part cursed as her suit malfunctioned and likewise was dumped on the ground. Photon used magnetism to cushion their falls, and Enigma used the opportunity to take cover in heavy brush.

Photon climbed, surveying the situation as the mage cast spells at him. What would Erebus do? ...Oh. When you put it that way, the answer was obvious. Jon grimly set the brush on fire, ready to contain it in case it spread. [SP: "Nice!"] There came a frightened yelp, and the flames suddenly died out; Photon used the time to configure a radar sense. The brush was confusing, but he could see well enough to target. The cold seemed to be working well, so he stuck with it.

Enigma was having a hard time hitting the invisible Photon, though he did manage to connect with a hungry green bolt that left Jon shaking and nerveless for a time. Finally the wizard said, "Enough of this! Let's see how much you care for your fair companion!" He started casting at the fallen Silver Siren, who was still trying to reboot her armor. Photon taunted him, "Hey Mr. Honorable, shooting at a defenseless woman?" He pressed the attack hard as he saw the mage getting desperate; he trusted Siren's armor.

Enigma sneered, "She put the costume on, knowing what it meant. She's fair game." He stamped his foot, uttering a hideous word; a glowing rune sank into the earth, and a fissure spread rapidly through the ground toward Siren. Photon shot him once more, earning a taunting, "Ruthless. Are you sure you're a hero?" But Jon used magnetism at the last second to lift Siren out of the way of the growing crevasse, to which the mage said, "Ah, so you do care after all."

Before much longer, Enigma realized his situation was hopeless. "Well played, Photon. But we shall cross swords again, I promise you that." Jon, ready for this moment, said, "Oh, must you be going? Your prison buddies are so looking forward to seeing you again." When he felt Enigma teleporting out, he pounced mentally and tried to cajole local spacetime back into a flat configuration. For a moment, his will locked with the mage's, and he could feel his enemy flailing desperately to escape, slipping out by the skin of his teeth. [He beat my power-stunted Nullify Teleport roll by 1. Darn mages always have high Will saves.] Jon said to himself with weary satisfaction, "That'll give him something to think about." [Another fight with lots of hero points flying around. Though it sounds rather one-sided, and it was, if Enigma had managed to hit me with that Dex Drain again, it woulda been all over. Jon's Fort save is abysmal.]

He turned and helped Silver Siren to her feet, then rebooted Beta, who seemed even less personable than usual: "System reboot: Online." "Yes, Beta, you were 'knocked out' by a spell." "Query: What is local time?" Jon and Siren shrugged. "About five forty, maybe 5:45?" "Observation: That time measurement is too imprecise." "Well, it's the best we can do until we get back to the city." "Suggestion: We should move to a secure location." "Agreed." Siren asked, "Does this 'secure location' have tools? I need to recalibrate my armor." "Uh, yeah, Technoid's tools should still be around." Jon carefully did not mention Technoid's current status. "Perfect. Let's go."

After Alpha had eased Beta back into a more presentable frame of mind and Siren had adjusted her armor to her satisfaction, she said to Jon, "I can see we're going to have to get people up here to help you out. No offense; you're clearly good. Hell, given that you fought Enigma off at a severe disadvantage earlier, I'd say you're very good. But this city is too much for a single guy." "Don't I know it. I'd definitely appreciate any help you guys can give." "I'll talk to Moke. But when Enigma shows up again, you probably don't want me or FAQ - that tech-suppression trick he's got is brutal. I'd suggest Thunderwing - Enigma doesn't seem equipped to handle somebody right up in his business." "Sounds about right. I look forward to working with you guys!" "The feeling's mutual! Your versatility could come in really handy - how do you do it, anyway?" Photon smiled. "It's a secret - and if you figure it out, let me know! All I know for sure is that it's sort of halfway between making friends with the universe and programming it like a computer. Training it like a dog might be the best analogy; a really smart, literal-minded dog." Siren stared at him. "Are you serious?" "Yeah." "...That's just bizarre. Sure you're not a wizard without realizing it?" Jon laughed. "Enigma doesn't seem to think so!" "True..." After some more chit-chat, she flew home to Portland.


A few days later, after Jon had returned from patrol, Alpha noted, "Oh, by the way, Mirror Mask's registration just appeared on the BSA website." "Well, that's a relief." "I do hope you're not planning to call him again with congratulations." Jon shuddered. "Hardly. That kid is migraine-inducing."

Alpha agreed, "I can't even get migraines, but he almost makes me wish I could." Jon suggested mischievously, "And you with this pain in all the diodes down your left side..." Alpha: "Paranoid, I am. Android, I am not. But I'll play along to the extent of admitting that our dear Masked Mirror is depressingly stupid." Jon suddenly sat bolt upright. "Say that again!"

"...Our dear Masked Mirror is depressingly stupid?" "Yeah!" "You're excited about him being stupid?" "No, I just remembered something... Pull up the security video of our conversation." Alpha did so. "Yeah? What are you seeing that I'm not?" Jon studied the mask closely. "Does it look at all Central American to you?" "Maybe just a little. OH!"

Jon nodded. "Yeah. 'Tezcatlipoca' means 'Smoking Mirror' in Nahuatl." Alpha: "And that's not all. Check THIS out." He pulled up the previous video, of Mirror Mask ('Shift' at the time) being interviewed by the Phantom and Erebus, and blew up the young hero's face. "The mask has changed." Jon looked closely; it had. Where before the mask had been abstractly close to a traditional 'devilish' appearance, in the later picture the pointed chin and horns had receded somewhat, and the fangs had grown more prominent. "Oh good grief." "...I was going to say something more colorful."

"Call Steve, please." "More good news - that phone has been disconnected." "Terrific. I guess I'll have to pay him a visit in person."

The Shadow

People in Jon's Workplace

Here are some notable people at Jon's workplace. (Be warned that I've snipped out a number of plot-hooks for public consumption.) There is a bit of tension toward him from the math department, as the physics department managed to secure funds to hire Jon at their expense. Naturally, many people in both departments couldn't care less; Jon himself is one of these. (While too observant to be entirely oblivious to academic politics, he finds it a crashing bore.)

Jon's status and cachet only increased when he was kidnapped by the Covenant. I mean, when you're one of a select few that an international supervillainous group sees fit to kidnap to work for them on a secret island base, it has to mean SOMETHING. Already a fairly "sexy" choice as major professor due to his youth and prominence, the incident increased his desirability yet further.

Dr. Rudy Gottlieb is Jon's department head. An experimentalist in atomic physics and laser traps, Jon is his wunderkind, a plum for the department. (Filling a bit of a hole they'd had relativity-wise, too.) He is anxious for results to justify the political capital he spent to bring Jon to Seattle, but thus far has been very hands-off, fearful of bruising his genius. :) (The more so after the Covenant incident.)

Dr. Karen Manning is a string theorist and a friend of Jon's. They like to bicker about the relative merits of their different approaches to unified field theory over coffee. Karen is divorced and has teenage kids who are giving her grief lately; she sometimes blows off steam to Jon, who is a good listener.

It has since been established in-game that Karen's kids are Jim (14) and Julie (17). The ex is Stan, who is an alcoholic. He lives in Vancouver.

Susan Radner is a graduate student in physics; Jon is her thesis advisor. Still in the initial stages of settling on a topic, she is interested in the details of how superheroes produce energy. She is planning to ask Photon for a demonstration of his abilities under controlled conditions. Jon, of course, is doing his quiet best to dissuade her. He doesn't think it's a promising line of research, but also, of course, he wants to protect his secret identity.

Susan has a personal reason for her interest in superheroes. The Phantom and Erebus saved her from an assailant one night on what was for them a routine patrol. She has been fascinated ever since, and hopes to pump Photon a little bit about them if she can get to talk to him.

Gerhard Ehrgeiz is also a grad student, one of Jon's RA's. He is of course from Germany, and thoroughly fluent in English. Gerhard is very bright even for a physicist, and has ambition to match, always looking out for the main chance. He has hitched himself, as he sees it, to Jon's rising star.

Gerhard ("Jerry" to his English-speaking friends) has noticed over the last year that Jon sometimes slips away with a lame excuse. The really odd thing is that sometimes he seems to just... vanish. He entered a stairwell once, for example, and Gerhard went after him to ask a question... but he wasn't there. Odd, but not alarming; Jon is so "boring" otherwise that it can hardly be anything serious. (There's also the fact that excessive curiosity about his major professor's doings could damage his career.) However, he is keeping a reluctant eye out to humor his girlfriend Melissa (see below). Sure, one's career comes first, but continuing to get laid is also a priority.

Melissa Sanders is a senior in journalism. She was present once visiting Gerhard when Jon slipped away to do Photon-stuff, and found it intriguing. Pestering Gerhard with questions, she found that Jon had spent a few weeks in the hospital a year earlier, having been shot in a mugging. She has now concocted a theory that Jon is involved with drug dealing or something equally spicy, and is all afire to uncover a hot story that will look good on her resume. Thankfully, she has not yet made any connection to Photon.

Xing Hu is Jon's other RA. Ambitious in a totally different sense than Gerhard, he has some very strange and interesting ideas about furthering the field that attract Jon's attention. Though he's not quite as bright as Gerhard, Jon finds talking with him very stimulating and fruitful. (This drives Gerhard privately CRAZY. Naturally, he hasn't made his feelings obvious - it comes out as a competitive streak.) Jon's even considering him inviting him to some of his chats with Dev (see below), which if it occurs will only drive Gerhard even wilder with jealousy.

Hu is a hard, dedicated worker, and finds Gerhard's competitive attitude to be very crass. His English is not the best, though he is improving. He studiously ignores anything in Jon's behavior not relevant to his job; it would be discourteous in his view to do otherwise.

Timothy Reed is a TA for Jon's first-year physics class. Tim is earnest, a bit gawky, and quite in awe of Jon (who is, after all, only a couple years older than he is). He's considering hooking up with him as an RA once he passes his comps. He has subliminally noticed Jon's occasional disappearances, but they don't bother him any; Dr. Winters can probably walk on water, too! He's a pretty good instructor.

Thomas Nwafor is another TA of Jon's. A recently-arrived Nigerian student, Thomas (never Tom) is a thorough but exacting instructor; he is already developing a reputation as a hard grader. Also, he has a fairly thick accent.

Paul Nichols is a freshman in Jon's first-year physics class. A sullen young delinquent when Jon first came to Seattle, he's one of the kids Jon worked with who warmed up to him and confided in him. Paul turned his life around, got his GED (he's quite bright), and is now bound and determined to become an engineer. He is finding college very difficult, however, and is struggling. He's in Tim's recitation section. Paul has been a little shy about approaching Jon, unwilling to make it seem that he's sucking up and prevailing on old acquaintance. Jon has noticed him and greeted him warmly, but has also noticed Paul's reticent response. He respects this, though he's a little puzzled by it.

Dr. Ketaro Watanabi is the head of the math department, a set theorist. Though he's been in this country for decades, he hasn't so much gotten accustomed to informal, offensively familiar Americans as resigned to them. (He visits his family in Japan frequently.) A consummate office politician, Dr. Watanabi lost out recently to Gottlieb regarding funding for new faculty. While reserving the bulk of his ire for his opposite number, Watanabi's attitude of polite, exquisitely correct hostility spills over onto Jon himself as well.

Dr. Devindar (Dev) Singh Dolma is a mathematician specializing in differential geometry, with sidelines into number theory and many other things. An older man with a very quirky sense of humor, he and Jon hit it off almost at once. Dev is full of strange enthusiasms, creating mathematical "toy models" of the most bizarre things, and he values Jon's insights regarding these. (To give you an idea, for a few months last year, he was seriously (?) trying to prove the existence of God using mathematics alone.)

Here's a conversation between them that came to me of a sudden:

Jon, joking: "You mathematicians are all crazy."

Dev, apparently serious: "This is truth. Do you really think that boring ordinary sanity would help me to classify 24-dimensional polytopes?" (Dev is a frequent contributor to a website classifying n-dimensional polytopes. He does this for fun, in his spare time.)

Jon: "Hmmm. You've... got a point there. I guess it doesn't help much with mapping the linkages between loops of spacetime, either."

Dev, smiling slightly: "And now think of all the boring ordinary sane people who pay us to do these things, yes?" He taps his temple. "Crazy like a fox!"

The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files: Legal Status of Non-Humans

No game tonight, unfortunately - SP had a nasty week at work. Hopefully we'll make it up soon. (Wednesday is our usual gaming night, but he might be able to get something in on Friday.)

In the meantime, there's a new post over at the Shadow-Force Files thread.

If anyone reading this has any comment, I'd be interested in hearing it.
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The Shadow

4 - Smoking Mirror

[Well, no luck on Friday, but things look good for Wednesday. Here's another entry. I'll also be putting up a file in the settings thread shortly.]

[Note that while this entry and the next describe two sessions, this first one combines part of both, to keep the adventure together. The remainder of the second session (a marathon in-person one) is its own entry. Also, there was a bit of a hiatus between the two parts of the first adventure - this entry - so I had to fill in quite a bit to make the join, and move stuff around to make it flow better. I hope this isn't too obvious.]

Photon paused before leaping into action. "Hold on. Should we get Struthers involved?" Alpha: "On what basis? You've got a hunch based on the word of a precognitive terrorist." Jon sighed. "Yeah." "Don't get me wrong, I think it's a GOOD hunch. I agree with you we've got really serious trouble by the tail here. But we can't prove anything." "And I'm a civilian, too. If I approach him the wrong way, I'll have the cops breathing down my neck for stalking. Of course, when THEY do it, it's a stakeout..." "Yeah. You'll have to be careful not to get caught." "Alpha! I'm not talking about getting caught, I'm talking about doing what's right!" "It's a joke, dude. Breathe!"

Jon punched his palm. "Do we really have to wait for him to go on a rampage before we DO anything?" "No. We just need to be clever." "Yeah. Hmm. Well, first I guess we need to figure out if he's Steve or someone else. How good are you at analyzing voices?" "Pretty good." "Still got the tapes of our phone conversations on file?" "Yep." "So, are Steve and Mirror Mask the same person?" "Sorry, I can't tell. The mask distorts his voice too much."

"OK... For now assume he isn't Steve. Who could he be? Does Steve have any brothers?" "...No brothers, but there's a cousin, Richard, at the same address." "Hmm. How old?" "Nineteen." "Ouch! I hope I didn't call him a liar when he was telling the truth. Is he in college?" "...No, but he's employed as a shift supervisor at a Taco Bell." "Got a cell phone?" "No, but he has a land-line at the Fitzpatrick home. You do realize that my finding all this stuff out isn't 100% legal, right?" Jon sighed. "He's in the phone book, right? So no real harm done." "Fair point, but the employment stuff is a little different." Jon said uncomfortably, "Well, it's public information. I'll leave his Social Security number alone if you will." "Check."

Jon paced back and forth. "While we can't rule out a friend of Steve's, Richard seems like the best candidate at the moment. ... A cousin, huh? Why is he living with his aunt and uncle?" "That'll be really difficult to track down." "I'm just thinking out loud, sheesh. Well, how can we determine whether someone is Mirror Mask or not? We need a mage. We can't contact Mystra..." "...And probably won't be able to for several weeks." "Right. So who do we know?" "Shadow-Force had good working relationships with three full-blown mages I can think of. One is on a... vision quest." Alpha's short pause there spoke volumes of skeptical contempt. He continued, "Another's definitively out of contact for now. The third..." "Dr. Miracle?" "No, he's the one out of contact. You haven't heard? The Guardians are off in another dimension again." Jon rolled his eyes. "Great. Who's left?"

"The Texas Hex, or Tex-Hex for short." "A teammate of Pecos Bill and Lone Star?" "Yeah, the Texas Legends." "Well, give them a call, please."

A recorded voice came over Alpha's speaker, "Thank you for calling the Texas Legends. If this is an emergency, press 1." Alpha added, "It's 10 PM their time." "Oh, right. Well... I guess it can wait until morning. Not sure I'll be able to sleep, though." "Sweet dreams." "...Is there any good news out there?" Alpha said brightly, "No sign of Enigma the last few days!" "You're just my regular bluebird of happiness, aren't you?" "It's a gift. When're you coming in?" "Six AM." "Gotcha."


At six, the call repeated the same recording, then added, "Please stay on the line, your call is important to us. We will be with you in approximately two minutes." Three and a half minutes of Muzak later, a chipper answering-service rep asked, "Thank you for calling the Texas Legends, how may I help you?" "This is Photon up in Seattle. I need to talk to the Texas Hex." "I'm afraid this is his day off, and he really doesn't like to be interrupted. Is this an emergency?" Jon replied with a certain barbed cheerfulness, "Well, it'll probably develop into a city-destroying menace in a week or a month or so, does that count?" "Well... If it can wait a week, would it be all right if he called back tomorrow?" Jon made an incoherent sound of astonishment, and she said apologetically, "He REALLY doesn't like to be interrupted on his day off."

"OK, let me put it this way: Yes, it is an emergency." "I'll put you through," she said with a long-suffering I-tried-to-warn-you tone. After a moment, a bleary hung-over voice said, "This is th' Texas Hex. Whatta you want?" "This is Photon from what remains of Shadow-Force in Seattle." "Don't give me none of that, son. Ever'body knows that Shadow-Force is done disbanded!" His Texan accent was so thick it couldn't be cut with a knife - something more like a chainsaw would be required.

Photon explained patiently, "Yes, I'm all that's left, along with X-97 Beta." "Fahn. What's th'emergency?" "Have you ever heard of Forestrike?" "...Ain't he some sort of psi-onic feller you guys fought ever' now and then? A pre-cognitive?" "That's him. Anyway, he sends us letters now and then warning us about things to come. His latest letter warned us to beware of a villain named Tezcatlipoca..." "Hail, son, Tez-catli-poca ain't a villain, he's an Aztec gawd!" Jon contained his long-suffering sigh. "Indeed. And we've got a new hero in town now who calls himself Mirror Mask. He's got a demonic-looking mask with a mirror finish that's changing to look more Central American..." "Wall, hail, son. Stop raht there. Central Amer'can, I'll give ye that. But 'Smokin' Mirror' refers to ob-sidian, not what we'd call a mirror." "Okay... all the same, I think we've got a really dangerous situation developing here. If I'm wrong, I'd be glad to know it, but I need a mage to tell me."

After a deep sigh. "Fahn. Will it all keep from blowin' up for another day?" "I have no reason not to think so." "Then Ah'll catch a plane there tomorrah. That good enough?" "Yes. Thank you very much." "Where'll Ah meet ya, anyway?" "We're still in our base for now." "I thought it was done shut down." "It's in the process of being decommissioned, yes." "Okee. Ah think Ah'c'n find it." "I'll be glad to meet you at the airport..." "All raht. Ah'll send ye a heads-up about when Ah'm comin'. Ah think y'won't miss it ver' easy." "Sounds good, I'll see you soon." Click.

Jon sat down wearily. "Why do people have to be so difficult?" Alpha replied, "Aw, you wouldn't want to be bored by uniform helpfulness, would you?" "Yes?" "Well, you're in luck: I have a bit of good news." "Let's hear it. I could use some." "We've had an applicant to join the team. Sounds promising, too." "Hmm. Tell me more." "She's calling herself 'Flora', but she'll probably want to change it - the name's taken by a hero in Boston. First level registration, been active a couple months." "Flora? She has plant powers?" "Sounds like it. She wants to set up a meeting, and she's come up with a non-witless method to contact us. Sent us a letter with no return address, and we call to a series of public phones at a certain time each day until we get her." Jon agreed, "She's no Mirror Mask. Of course, it's awkward with Tex-Hex coming. Maybe we can get her in tonight or tomorrow morning?" "On it, boss."

Jon went in to work - that is, he flew there in light-form and reformed in an out-of-the-way spot in his civvies, then walked the rest of the way. He was working at his computer, wrapping things up to start his approaching office hour, when a small imp poofed into being next to him and piped shrilly, "Tomorrow, Flight 645, 3:20 PM! Tomorrow, Flight 645, 3:20 PM!" Before Jon could react further than dropping his jaw, it poofed out again.

A student poked his head in the door. "Hey, Dr. Winters. What was that sound?" Jon closed his mouth and said, "Uh, I clicked on a link in an email, not realizing it led to a YouTube video. Ha! Ha! Crazy things don't even make any sense half the time. What'll they think of next?" "What was it saying? Something about numbers?" Jon said brightly, "Just some math humor. Did you have a physics question?" "Oh! Right, let me get out my stuff..." Crisis averted, Jon thought, and wiped the sweat from his brow. Tex-Hex must have a sick sense of humor... that, or this was his idea of revenge.

Heading in to the base (having already informed Alpha of the message), he learned, "Flora's coming in at 7. Oh, and a package and a letter arrived for you." "A package, huh? From where?" "Some sort of foundation here in town. And the letter's from a kid, by the handwriting." "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" "If you're thinking about Forestrike's warning about mail, then yes." "Got it in one."

Between the two of them, they tested the package within an inch of its life, examining it with multiple wavelengths, X-ray vision, microscopic vision, field sense, and extensive chemical tests in Alpha's lab. The results, almost disappointingly, were uniformly negative. Ditto for the letter.

Opening the package gingerly, Jon found a box of imported chocolates and a letter from the foundation thanking him for preventing Enigma from doing more damage to the museum than he had. The chocolates proved to be non-toxic, so Jon tasted one. It was good. Finally he relaxed. "It's nice to be appreciated." "I'll bet. Dang, I'm gonna have to design myself a sense of taste one of these days." Jon clutched the box. "Hands off! It was addressed to me, chip-boy!" "Sheesh, some pal you are..." They both laughed. Alpha asked, "What about the letter?"

Jon opened it too, and his heart melted. "Awww. It's adorable!" It said in crude writing in crayon, "Dear Foton, I think yuo ar kool! BILLY" and had a misshapen drawing of Photon firing a laser beam at what appeared to be a reptilian monster. He held it up for Alpha to admire. "Mike always got gooey over those too. He was popular with the kids - friendly ghost, and all that." Photon tacked it up on the bulletin board. "Well, I should probably respond, huh?" "Oh yeah. People really remember it when they hear back from you." So Jon dictated a polite letter of thanks to the foundation, and sent Billy an autographed photo along with a brief note of encouragement.

He was in a sunny mood when 'Flora' walked in the door. She had long brown hair and was wearing a costume resembling a one-piece swimsuit, along with a three-quarters mask, gloves, and boots, all in subtly-varying shades of green. Looked to be college age or a bit older. He greeted her warmly and introduced himself (as Photon), getting her a cup of coffee as they sat down. "So tell me about yourself. What are your powers?" She replied, "I discovered about a year ago I could speed up the growth of plants - I've always had a green thumb. Since then, I've learned to animate trees and other plants and can produce toxic clouds of pollen." "Toxic how?" "Like allergies on steroids. I can give people severe coughing fits, even knock them out." "Interesting. Do you have any way of getting around?" "I can have an animated tree carry me. They can run faster than you'd think." "How fast?" "I've chased down cars before." Jon blinked. "Wow, who'd have thought it?" "I know, right? For things that spend their lives rooted in the ground, they do seem to like to stretch their limbs. ... Pardon the pun."

Jon laughed. "Well, I confess myself intrigued. I see you've been registered a couple months. How's it gone for you?" "No serious problems. I can turn my skin hard like wood - bullets don't hurt much in that state." Jon nodded. "Anything else I should know?" "Well, I can photosynthesize too. Makes a handy addition to the mask, and it lets me heal somewhat faster in sunlight.." She demonstrated, turning her skin and hair leaf-green, and Jon's heart suddenly froze with premonition. He kept it out of his eyes and voice, though, and said lightly, "I can produce sunlight if necessary." "Good to know! I don't use it much - I prefer to taste my carbohydrates! - but it's handy in a pinch."

Jon nodded. "By the way, the name 'Flora' is taken. There's a hero in Boston by that name." "Oh, drat. I was afraid of that. Well, how about 'Dryad'?" Alpha informed Jon, Hero in a small Chicago team, and Jon passed on the information. 'Flora' sighed. "I'm out of ideas for now, then. I'll have to think of something." Jon sent, You got any ideas? Alpha returned sharply, Oh, I don't know. How about... 'Jade'? You saw that too, eh? Oh yeah. 'Nephrite' suits her all too well.

Photon drummed his fingers on the table. "I think you could make a good addition to the team; I definitely think we should try some joint patrolling to see how things go. This week is likely to be crazy, I'm afraid - I'm in the middle of an investigation - but how about we pick up after it dies down?" "Sounds good! Thanks for giving me a chance!" "My pleasure. Just have a codename settled on before we start, or the press will likely pin one on you! It's never a pretty sight." "I'll do my best! See you in a week!" She bounced out of the base, looking excited.

Alpha asked bluntly, "What do you think you're doing? We were both suspicious!" Jon leaned back in his chair. "She's either on the level, or she's planning to betray us. If the former, we need her. If the latter, well, 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.'" Alpha whistled in appreciation. "Jon! You're getting devious!" "Heh. I've spent a year around the best, haven't I?" "Oh yeah. It's just... interesting."

That night's patrolling was uneventful. Jon took some time away from work the next day to turn up invisibly at the airport, at the gate Tex-Hex would be arriving at. Sure enough, a tough-looking older guy stepped off the flight wearing a duster and a wide-brimmed hat. He scanned the crowd warily, looking for all the world like he'd stepped off the set of a Western. Photon said quietly from above his left shoulder, "I'm right here." The Texas Hex abruptly whirled on him with an upraised glowing hand, silver runes flaring to life all over his duster. "Son, don't ever be sneakin' up on an old man like that." The man quieted down his costume and glared at the people staring at him until they went about their business, then strode away decisively. Jon said softly, "Serves you right for your 'heads-up'. I was at work!" "Heh heh. Ah told it to be sure to arrive when you were alone, what're you complainin' about?" "People overheard it!" "Wail, Ah can't help that, now can Ah?" He sounded entirely too smug, and Jon let it drop.

Arriving at the base (Tex proved able to fly, after touching one of the runes inscribed on his coat), Jon made him at home and added, "Tex, meet X-97 Alpha. Alpha, the Texas Hex." Alpha: "Charmed." "Heh. Not yet... Wait jest a minute. X-97 Alpha?" "That's me." Photon: "We don't talk about him much. Keep his existence under your hat, if you would." Tex: "Wail now. Mah hat is extra-special large and capacious, as you can see." He tipped it and added, "Ah can see how an AI feller could be handy to have around! But how 'bout you fill me in on this Tez-catli-poca thang?"

They showed him the security videos, and Tex got grimmer and more serious as he examined them. "Ah'll tell y'straight, Photon. Ah thought you were jumpin' at shadows. But... Y'know how they say a gunman gets an itchy trigger finger? Wail, wizards get it too. An' let me tell you, that mask done gives it to me raht proper. Ah got me a powerful feelin' there's a-gonna be killin' afore this is over." "Let's hope it doesn't come to that." "Raht. Looks like we've caught him early, though. Ah don't think he'll be bendin' anyone over an altar within the next few weeks, anyway. Give me the rest of what y'got." They did so.

"So what's th'plan?" "Well, can you scan the mask to tell what it's doing to him?" "That Ah can. But Ah'll have to get right up close-like, say fifteen feet or thereabouts." "OK. So we need to confirm that Richard is Mirror Mask, and somehow get you within range of him. ... You know, I've considered getting Struthers in on this. I mean, Mask admitted to me he'd been doing illegal vigilante work. It would give us a chance to bring him in." "Wail... I dunno there, Photon. It'd be a kinda rotten thang to do, raht? And he'd jest clam raht up." "Yeah, that's what I figured. Well, we know where Richard works, and we know Mirror Mask goes out at night to fight crime. I guess we can stake out his house. If he happens not to be Richard, we should know soon." "Sounds good t'me. We start to-naht, Ah reckon?" "Tonight, yes. What's your registration level?"

Tex replied, "Second, but Ah'm out of mah juris-diction. We'll have t'be careful not to get caught." Alpha snrked and Jon rolled his eyes. "I swear you two are in league to corrupt my morals!" Tex grinned and put his feet up. "Wail now, Ah reckon we can be nice li'l choirboys an' wait for Mirror Mask to start sharpenin' his knife, or we'c'n take a few steps afore that happens." More seriously he added, "Ah ain't sayin' the rules ain't important, Photon. But we've got the rules to preserve people's rahts, y'see? An' the way Ah figure, it's powerful hard to have your rahts more violated than havin' yer heart done cut out. If we'c'n stop that by keepin' an eye on someone's house fer a spell, Ah say no harm done. Ain't like we plan on makin' off with the silverware."

Jon sighed. "I guess you're right. But I just... don't like it." Tex nodded. "Make sure y'never do. Know what yer doin' with eyes open. But never get t'likin' it, or you maht end up joinin' those int'restin' characters in Stronghold." "Never happen. My costume's much too tasteful." Tex threw back his head and roared with laughter. "Y'never said a truer word! Most o'them villain fellers cain't figure out color co-ordi-nation to save their lives!" "What is it with all the purple, anyway?" They fell to joking and exchanging stories about supervillains they'd fought until Alpha informed them that Richard's shift was nearing an end.

They turned invisible and flew out. Jon sent, You've been awfully quiet, Alpha. What's up? Tex's presence seems to disrupt my circuits; it's unpleasant. Almost like a migraine. Yikes. Should we mention it to him? Maybe he can tone it down? I'll live. Just get Mask sorted out. Okay...

Photon: "Can you sense the mask when it's inactive?" "Nope. At any rate, I cain't sense nothin' in the house as of yet." Soon Richard arrived back home and Jon got his first look at the young man's face. Black hair, brown eyes. Confident, but not nearly so overbearing as with the mask on. Was that psychological, an effect Photon knew well from his own costume, or something more?

They waited. After several hours, Tex said, "Ah'm powerful hungry, Photon. Let's go get some grub." "You go - we might miss him." "No worries, son. Ah'll leave a magic sensor. If he puts that mask on, Ah'll know." "Well... all right." "And none o'that Micky-D's, neither!"

Photon led the way to a steakhouse, alighted, and shifted his costume back to his civilian clothes. "No harm in goin' in super, son. But jest as you like..." Tex willed the runes on his duster to quiescence and soon he was tucking into a hefty steak. "It ain't no Steak'n'Bake, that's certain, but it tain't bad atall, neither!" "Glad to hear it. You know, as long as I've got you here, do you mind if you pick your brains on another topic?" "Son, for this fahn steak, you can ask me anythin' you please!"

"I'm wondering if you can give me any advice on fighting Enigma." "Enigma... Rune-caster, ain't he?" "Yes." "Wail, y'c'n never go wrong shootin' whatever the rune's on. Done spoils the whole spell, if'n y'do it raht. Mind, if th'rune is carved into somethin', don't get fancy and try to X it out or nothin'. Don't add to the lines of the rune, is what I'm sayin', just muss it up general-like. That help?" "Yes, actually. But I've also heard multiple sources describe Enigma as a sorcerer, too - a spirit summoner. How's that fit in?"

Tex frowned. "It means he's a raht sneaky basta'd, that's what it means." "How so?" "Ah reckon he's usin' the runes for his bread and butter, y'see what I mean? But he's got what y'might call an in-surance pol'cy. He's worked out a few deals with some spirits - unpleasant ones, Ah'm guessin'." "Demons?" "It's as good a name as any, an' better'n most." "So how does that figure into my tactics?" "Wail, see, it's best for a sorcerer to take things nice an' slow, cut a deal that he's fully prepared for. Enigma might have some spells he'c'n activate through existin' deals o'that sort. But if you press him, back him into a corner, he might feel the need to make a deal quick-like - and that's never a pleasant thang. He could end up owin' a service his ownself."

Jon mused, "The last time we fought, he started to teleport out, and I tried to stop him. I don't think he knew I could do that..." "Haw! Good one!" "Anyway, I could get a sense of him through it, and he seemed... scared." Tex grinned and pounded the table with his fist. "Son, you may jest have ruined his whole week! He maht be workin' off a debt in a Hell-dimension as we speak, and it does mah heart good to hear!" "Hmm. If so, he'll come back mad, won't he?" "Mad for shore... an' scared. Mad, scared villains make mistakes. Mark mah words, Photon, if we're raht, you've put the fear o' Gawd in that scumbag."

"Let's hope he puts it to good use." "Amen and amen!" "It's good talking with you, Tex. You're much easier to deal with than Mystra." "Now Mystra, she's an odd duck." "Yeah, what's the deal with her anyway?" Tex said matter-of-factly, "Ah reckon she's made a pact with a pretty int'restin' spirit. Magic don't never come without a price, Photon." "You're saying the way she talks..." "It's part of her pact." "What sort of spirit would want that?" "Ah dunno for certain. Maybe a spirit of cha-os. Or jest one with a strange sense of humor. Or hail, maybe even the spirit o' the 60's, for all Ah know." Jon blinked. "Wait... You're saying there's literally such a being as the Spirit of the Sixties?"

Tex studied Jon for a second, then said, "How 'bout we jest say there is, so as to prevent mah blowin' yer mind." Jon blinked several times. "Too late... You already have." Tex chuckled tolerantly. "Son, I don't doubt there's plenty o'things you know a lot more about than me. But spirits... I could tell you about 'em all naht long, and you'd only have jest dipped your toe in. It is jest not possible for you to have a grip on the subject, seein' as how you've not had any trainin'. I mean, you could prob'ly tell me somethin' about nuclear physics to-naht, but it'd jest be stick figures and pretty pictures compared to the math in y'head, am I raht?" Jon sighed. "I see your point."

They started heading back to the Fitzpatrick house. "No word from your sensor?" "Not a peep." "Huh. I wonder why he's not heading out tonight?" "Who knows? Maybe he's off on a date. Young men do that, I hear." "So I'm told." Tex grinned. "Wail now! Either you're way too pent up, son, or else you've got one o' them 'altern-ative lifestyles' I keep hearin' about." Jon rolled his eyes. "Relax, you're safe." Tex stood upright in the air, gripping the lapels of his duster and grinning wider. "Oh, Ah don't know! Ah fancy Ah cut quite the fahn figure of a man!" "I've got a girlfriend." "Wail, shucks, is she open to new thangs?"

Jon laughed despite himself. "You're a piece of work, Tex." "Ah do try. Stakeouts are always easier with a sense of humor, Ah always say." "Yeah... I know what you mean. It was always easier to be on patrol with the Phantom or Chameleon than with Erebus or Bazooka." "Ah hear that. Lone Star's all raht, an' Bill, he's more fun than a bag o'snakes, but Johnny Reb... Don't get me wrong, he's a fahn upstandin' feller, but he's so intent on bein' the puhfect Southe'n gentleman that th'stick up his... Wall hail." "What?" "My sensor... it's done burned out and Ah never noticed." "Burned out?" "Yep. Ah think... when he put the mask on, the pulse o'magic done overwhelmed it." "That... doesn't sound good." "It ain't. Not even a li'l bit. We gotta find him." "Well... I can do a quick search of the city for him. Should only take a few milliseconds." Tex nodded, unsurprised. "Be about it, then."

Jon took light-form and zipped hither and yon... incidentally finding a burglary in progress. "Oh good grief." He materialized and shone a spotlight on the guy. "Ahem." The burglar lunged for a gun, and Jon rolled his eyes and stun-zapped him. The guy flopped about and struggled to get the gun out his holster, but it was stuck. Another zap put his lights out. Jon had Alpha call the cops and waited patiently for them to get there and take the man in hand, then returned to Tex-Hex.

"Sorry for the delay. Crime waits for no man." Tex nodded easily. "Ah went and counted the milliseconds, an' gave raht up at a thousand. Figured somethin' important came up." "Let's head back to the base and get you a communicator in case we're separated again." They did so. "I'll try taking another look. Hopefully everyone'll be upstanding citizens the next few seconds..." "Don't count on it, but good luck!"

This time, as Photon sped through the city, he saw something odd - something not awash in the blue of shifted wavelengths. He saw an inky hole of a man, frozen in the act of fighting a thug. It reminded Jon almost of Erebus for a moment, but then he saw the characteristic shape of the mask. He materialized above the heads of the combatants, turning invisible and telling Alpha and Tex his location. Tex said over the com, "Try to keep him there, Ah'm teleportin' toward you in jumps. It'll be a bit!"

The fight was soon over. Jon noticed that every time Mask struck the man, his hand or foot would shimmer with light. The young hero brutally beat the man, but stopped once he was unconscious. He turned toward the thug's erstwhile victim, fading back into his normal coloration. "You OK, ma'am?" "Oh, yes, thank you!" She took out a cell phone and dialled 911.

Mirror Mask shifted nervously on his feet, then ran to a nearby wall, catching at handholds and hauling himself up to the roof. The woman said, "Wait! You aren't going to leave me here, are you?" "I'll, uh, wait up here. Don't worry."

Jon chose that moment to reveal himself, flying in visibly and alighting next to Mask. "Hey, nice work." The young man started, tensing up. "Oh. Thanks, I guess." "Your powers seem to be improving." "Yeah. I hit a plateau for a while, but I've started to get the hang of it again. I'm getting a lot better, and fast." "Maybe we need to discuss teamwork, then." Mask ducked his head to his chest and said quietly, "I don't think you want me any more."

That response from the formerly arrogant teen hero alarmed Jon. He asked gently, "Why not?" After a pause, "The cops are after me. I... think I killed a guy. I didn't mean to. I just hit him and..." He shuddered. Jon reached out hesitantly and gripped his shoulder. "That's rough, man. Want to tell me what happened?" Mirror Mask wrestled within himself, then poured out, "This girl... she was on the ground, bleeding...! Her clothes were torn open. I... just lost it. I wasn't thinking straight. I hit the guy. I wanted to hurt him bad..." His shoulders shook.

Jon said quietly, "Hey. I'm sorry it happened." He didn't know what else to say, so he just stood there, offering his presence. Mask finally said, "I don't know what to do." Very gently, Jon told him, "Listen, maybe you should talk to the cops. Running away is not the solution." "I can't! I-" "Hey, we and the cops are on the same side, right? Give them a chance." "Maybe..." Suddenly Mask's head shot up in alarm for no reason Jon could sense. "Crap! Gotta go!" He wrenched himself free of Jon's grip and ran along the rooftop, Jon flying after. "Wait! There's someone I want you to meet!" Mask leaped off into empty space, heading right toward a window lit up by a streetlight.

Jon stared in amazement as the window... rippled... and Mask vanished without breaking it. Shortly afterward, Tex teleported in. "Where is he?!" "He's... gone. Vanished into that window." Tex cursed foully under his breath. "Ah can feel the traces of magic. He's gettin' strong. Ver' strong." Just then the cops arrived and the two heroes went down to answer their questions, Jon rapidly filling Tex in via communicator. They gave the cops the story, and were told, "If you see Mirror Mask again, tell him we just want to talk to him. He's a material witness, but hasn't yet been charged with anything." "We'll do that, officer."

Back at the base, Tex grilled Jon on everything he'd heard and seen. "A plateau, huh? Let's hope raht hard that it wasn't the killin' that got him past it. That... would be bad." "Oh my goodness! I hadn't even thought of that." "Now, you said you could sense a teleport. Did you feel anythin' when he hit the window?" "No, not a thing." "Wail, that narrows it down. Did you notice if he had a reflection in the mirror?" "I'm sorry, I didn't." "Damn. That leaves me with three poss'bilities." "What are they?" "Either he moved into another dimension, or else he's mirror-jumpin'." "And the third?" "A variant on mirror-jumpin', the details aren't important."

"So what do we do now?" "Time is of th'essence, Photon. There's no tellin' where he's at raht now." "Well... I think the time's come to contact Struthers and get the police up to speed." "Agreed." Jon called in, but Struthers was of course off duty. He was directed to a Captain Smith, who heard him out but said, "Not enough to go on. Struthers can deal with it in the morning." "But..." "But nothing. You capes are trouble, and you're Struthers' headache, not mine."

Jon sighed when the man hung up. "Great. Well... We know where he lives. Do we call, or visit in person?" Tex shrugged. "You've spoken with him, Ah haven't. What d'you think?" Jon pondered. "Let's call. I think he'll find it less threatening." He did so, and Richard answered. "...Hello?"

"Hello, Richard." "Who is this?" "We spoke earlier tonight." "...I work in the service industry, I spoke with a lot of people tonight." Jon said gently, "This is Photon..." "CRAP!" Click. Jon shot Tex a desperate glance, then shimmered himself into the zero-point.

An eternal instant later, Jon shot around the house at luminal velocity. He didn't feel right entering the house... What to do? If Mask left the house, he could follow... He solidified, and gingerly used his X-ray vision to figure out where the young hero was. He had the mask on and was... lunging toward something out of Jon's field of view... he was gone. It was... a full-length mirror. Oh... darn!

He returned and reported failure to Tex, crestfallen. "Did y'see if he left a reflection?" "No. I'm sorry." "Buck up, son. It happens. What's th'plan now?" "I... can search the city more thoroughly." "We don't know if he's in the city, but it's worth a try." So Jon spent half an hour going through the Seattle area with a fine-toothed comb at light-speed, but came up empty. "He's gone. I don't know what to do!" "Only one thang to do at this point, Photon. We go in tomorrah mornin' and report to this Struthers feller. Hopefully he's the understandin' sort." "We? It's my city, and I'm the one who screwed up." "Look, Photon. Ah don't want you to go in alone, a rookie ownin' up to a mistake. You need to build reputation here, and that won't help. If Ah'm with you, a vet'ran so to say, it'll look better. And it's nothin' but the truth, raht?" "Yeah... I guess so." "'Sides, it's like that Smith feller said. The cops know we supers are loose cannons, it's in the DNA. Sometimes lit'rally!"

Struthers heard them out impassively; Tex did most of the talking. Jon could tell the older man was doing his best to take the heat on himself, and writhed inwardly. Eventually, the captain sighed. "Enough already. You screwed up; you know it, I know it. Do better in the future, and keep me in the loop, dammit! But for now we need to figure out how to proceed." He paused and held up a sheet of paper. "A warrant for Mirror Mask's arrest. I've been sitting on it for a few days, to give him a chance to talk to us before we haul him in. It'll go much easier on him if he does, but I can't sit on it forever." Photon cleared his throat hesitantly. "Captain, I think if he knows everyone's after him, he'll just get more scared and disappear. The longer you can hold off, the better, I think." The Texas Hex nodded and backed his play.

Struthers pondered. "All right, Photon. We'll try it your way. If you can tell me he's not a threat to my officers." Jon said carefully, "I don't think he would willingly hurt a cop, or anyone else but criminals, and even them not seriously. But I also have the impression that he has episodes where he loses control." "Oh, wonderful. Why can't they ever be predictable?" "In any case, he isn't in the city now." "If you come across him, you'll contact me straight off. I'll leave orders for them to wake me if I'm off duty." "Yes sir."

Once again back at the base, Tex stretched and said, "Nothin' to do now but catch up on our beauty sleep." "I guess. I don't know what to do next... I have no way of knowing when and if he even comes back to Seattle!" "That's somethin' Ah'c'n help with. Get me a map of th'city." Jon looked at him quizzically, but obeyed. "Spread it out, and mark for me where the base is." "Right here. Why?" The Texas Hex drew a small compass out of a pocket of his duster and blew on it gently. A rune on its back glowed red, and he set it down on the location of the base. The needle spun lazily around and around. "If'n our friend Richard comes to town with the mask on, the compass will start glowin' and the needle will point raht toward him." "Thanks, Tex. That'll help." "Ah aim to please."

That afternoon, Jon saw Tex-Hex off to the airport. "It's been a pleasure, Tex." "Same back at'cha, Photon! Keep me informed about Mirror Mask, if you would be so kind. Ah'm profess'nally int'rested at this point. And if you need help in dealin' with him, do let me know." "Thanks. And if you guys need help of the electromagnetic variety, well, Texas isn't far at the speed of light." "Thank you kindly! We'll be in touch."

Jon told Alpha later, "Keep a camera on that compass." "Way ahead of you. If Mirror Mask comes to town, I'll let you know right away." Jon sighed. "I just wish... He could have been an ally, even a friend." "Who knows? But that mask probably has other ideas." Jon shrugged. "Erebus had to deal with a hostile force constantly pushing him toward violence. He did OK." "...Most of the time." "Yeah."

"Good night, Alpha." "'Night, Jon. Don't beat yourself up too much. He got himself into this whole mess, not you." "Yeah, I know."

[According to SP, calling Mask had a decent chance of working, but he rolled poorly on the reaction. Ah well.]

The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files: The Phantom

OK, I had hoped to put up a post on the Parapsychological Studies Institute, but I need to hear back from SP on a few things first. So instead, I've put up a post on their most famous "graduate":


As you'll see when the P.S.I. post goes up, although they're now defunct as a group, they're still quite relevant to the campaign...
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The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files: Erebus

On the theory that he and the Phantom are two great tastes that taste great together, I also present the duke of darkness (and of duct tape!), the shaper of shadows:


In other news, we will game tonight, barring cosmic catastrophes and/or household crises. Which means you'll get another update!
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The Shadow

5 - Dragon's Egg

The weekend after the Mirror Mask debacle, Alpha said, "You might want to check out the 'Seattle Supers' site, Photon." A well-known, meticulously researched website, run by someone who identified himself only as 'Pagemaster'. Jon sat down at a workstation and pulled it up. "Why, what's up?" "He's got some new info on you, and it's scarily accurate."

Jon read for a bit and blinked. "You're not kidding. How could he possibly have grounds to speculate I fly using gravity?" "Follow the link. He gives his reasoning in detail." Jon did so, and found that since he didn't leave a visible trail like many energy-based heroes, and because there were no reports of his presence interfering with electronic devices, he was unlikely to be using electromagnetism to fly. Nor did he seem to be using a device. As supporting evidence, Pagemaster presented the fact that Enigma had been able to drain some of Photon's powers, but not all. "Wow. I can't fault his reasoning, but..." "Yeah. Too close for comfort." "He does villains too - is this good for his health?" "Well... Everybody knows the federal government maintains a first-class database on supers. I guess people figure nothing he says is likely to be worse than that." "Yeah, but villains don't get to look at the government files - at least, I sure hope not! I don't want anyone reading this and getting ideas." "Read on."

Jon found some very shrewd guesses about his light-form - not all correct, to be sure, but not far from the mark. And speculation (based on Photon's diction and phrasing) that he, Jon, was either a scientist or a super-genius. Overall, Pagemaster's coolly-given opinion was that Photon had been widely underestimated, and sported much greater power and versatility than anyone in the super-fan community had suspected. "Good grief, he even knows I've worked with the Texas Hex!" "Yeah, several super-blogs picked up that sighting of Tex in the Seattle airport. Speculation has run rife."

Checking out a few other heroes, he found that Mirror Mask had also gotten some recent treatment - with the conclusion that his powers had improved, but that he was dangerously arrogant and soon to be in trouble with the police. (Pagemaster's speculation matched Jon's own - that Mask had gained the ability to stay phased, only phasing in parts of his body to strike his foes.) Jon shook his head. "This isn't my idea of a public service. Still... freedom of speech." "Yeah. I'll keep an eye on it for you."

"Anything else in the media I should know?" "The press has figured out the location of your super-battle with Enigma. The police have it blocked it off as a hazardous site, though." "Yeah, I saw the reactions to my skywriting." The Times had written an editorial on the dilemmas involved in contacting a criminal at large; the Post-Intelligencer had written up the skywriting neutrally, but then also printed an editorial on 'Supers and Egotism', which, while it didn't name any names, was clearly pointed in Photon's direction.

Jon got up and stretched. "So - patrol time?" "Not just yet. We're waiting for 'Flora', or whatever her name is." "Oh, right. Her first test, I guess. If she isn't here by 7, I'm leaving without her." He needn't have worried. The green heroine bounced in eagerly at 6:30. Jon nodded. "Welcome. Have you come up with a codename?" "Is 'Demeter' taken?" Alpha? Greek heroine in the 60's. Nobody current. Jon passed on the information, adding, "It should be fine." "Great. Ready to go?" "When you are." Jon gave her a communicator and showed her how to use it. Then they went outside, where she animated a tree off the base's grounds. It lifted her into a fork in its branches, which shaped itself into something resembling a throne. "Let's go."

Photon flew on, pushing the pace a bit - sure enough, the tree could make surprisingly good time. Didn't seem to do any property damage, either. Suddenly a car screeched up, and a man with a press badge leaned out the window with a microphone. "Photon! Are you and her working together now? Are you still working with the robot? Are you lovers?" Jon groaned - an infamous 'ambush journalist'. "No comment, no comment, and no comment. Go away." He and Demeter ignored him for a while, then after an interminable drone of questions, Demeter subvocalized into her communicator. "Let's lose him. Cut through the park?" "You're on." Demeter animated a new tree, sending the old one shambling back home to the base grounds. "Sheesh. Does that happen often?" "No. I've... never really been the glamorous type." "You'll have to get used to being the popular kid in town." "I guess."

The rest of the patrol was uneventful. Upon arriving home, Alpha asked, OK, just what did you DO? Hm? I've got no less than three reporters on the phone right now, clamoring for an interview. And they're not the first. Wow! They let super-battles pass, but a simple patrol with Demeter is News? Maybe it's a slow day? I dunno. Oh, and one of the hopefuls is your old friend Chris Perkins. ...That takes a lot of nerve. That's what I said. Here's how he responded:

Alpha played back the phone call, Perkins saying, "If you look into it, you'll find I filed an injunction against the Post-Intelligencer for mangling my story." Alpha: "Yes, and I also find that it was rejected." Perkins sighed. "They found a loophole in my contract, there was nothing I could do. I have a new airtight one now, one that gives me final cut." "We'll want to see it before we promise anything." "...I'm afraid I can't do that, there's a non-disclosure built in. You'd need a subpoena to see it." "Well, don't call us, we'll call you." "Wait! I-" Click.

A secret contract? That smells fishy. Agreed, and I don't even have a sense of smell! Can you get Carlton Legal on that? I think it might be interesting. Will do.

Demeter asked, "Penny for your thoughts? You're quiet all of a sudden." "Oh... sorry. Just pondering the ramifications of fame. Have you had much contact with the press since you started hero-ing?" "None, really, except..." She flushed. "Well, Hustler asked me to appear in a special issue, 'Women in Uniform'. I turned them down flat." Alpha to Jon: April 2007. ...You read Hustler? I read everything, I'll have you know.

Jon cleared his throat and said, "Didn't..." then gave it up as a bad job. "Oh heck. Go ahead and talk out loud, Alpha." "Your funeral, boss." Demeter looked around for the voice, eyebrow raised quizzically. Jon told her, "X-97 Alpha." "Oh! That makes sense now! Is he another robot?" "No, the base computer. Anyway, Alpha here apparently has a dirtier mind than I'd thought..." "Hey now! Ask yourself who I could have gotten it from!" "...Anyway, he says that 'Women in Uniform' appeared in 2007. Didn't you say you'd only started hero-ing two months ago?"

Demeter, having finally spotted one of Alpha's cameras, faced it and cocked her head. "...You read Hustler?" Alpha put on a playfully defensive tone, "Hey, obviously I picked it up from meat-boy here! My chips are made from the finest, purest silicon, I assure you. Pity me, the victim of organic corruption." "Oh, you poor thing. You're so corrupted with organic filth you forgot that there was going to be a 'Women in Uniform II' later this year." "...Whoops. Well, obviously it's all meat-boy's fault." "Hey! Leave me out of this!" "Alas, but-" Then, via radio, Photon, Technoid's energy construct is going crazy. Get in there and check it out NOW!

Jon was off like a shot. "Demeter, trouble! Stay here!" She's following you. Lock the internal doors down, Alpha. Done. Then, out loud, "Get me Carlton Research on the line! And Moke!" "Dialing. What's going on?"

Skidding to a stop in front of the energy construct, Jon noticed that the shield-rings were rotating significantly faster than ever before. Simultaneously reading the gauges and opening his field senses to the max, he reported, "There's a major power spike occurring every two seconds or so, at regular intervals. It's redlining the gauges, but only very briefly as each spike passes - tapping the far end and bouncing back. Why the HECK is he using analog gauges?! He MUST be crazy!" [Heh, that last bit was me jabbing SP a little. :)]

Alpha: "I've gotten them to wake up the guy in charge of Research. I've dealt with him before. His name's Dr. Norton, and he's a serious prick." "Joy. Put him on." "What the hell did you DO, you pitiful excuse for a light bulb?!" "Nothing! Just get OVER here with a team, and fast!" "I'm driving too fast as we speak, moron! Just... don't touch anything!" Jon rolled his eyes and told Alpha to hang up. "Do you have Moke?" "Yep, he's still waking up." "Moke, Photon! We've got a serious situation here with a dangerous device of Technoid's, and we need FAQ up here RIGHT NOW!" "Calm down, Photon. How dangerous?" "Act-of-God dangerous! Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki dangerous! Be-on-a-different-continent dangerous!" "...I'm sending FAQ up there right away." "Thanks!"

That done, Jon actually did start to calm down a little. There wasn't anything he could do, after all, except watch. The construct would change color slightly - shading from yellow toward blue-white - with each pulse of power. "Alpha, how's the compass?" "No change, why?" "Because this would be the worst possible time for Mirror Mask to show up?" "Right, our good friend Murphy. And now that we've checked, it won't happen?" "We can hope. What's Demeter doing?" "Pacing back and forth."

Jon went back to the Situation Room and tersely filled her in. She snapped at him, eyes blazing, "Thanks for letting me know! If I'm part of the team, don't go running off like that!" Photon told her levelly, "You're not part of the team yet. When you are, I'll let you know. ... But it may be that we'll need your help tonight, so I would ask you to stick around." "Fine!"

Alpha said quietly, "Uh guys?" In unison, "WHAT?" "I really, really do not want FAQ to know I exist. He's cocky and he likes to tinker, and frankly he scares me. Please keep me under wraps." Demeter finally grinned and levelled a finger at the nearest camera. "Okay, but you owe me, chip-boy." Alpha emitted a long-suffering sigh. "Never a mention of Hustler again, I promise." "That'll do. For starters." Alpha to Jon: You know, whether or not she's evil... she's still evil, you know?

Just then they were interrupted by Norton and his team screeching up in a van. "Photon! Help me move this equipment into the lab! You'll just be in the way otherwise!" Jon rolled his eyes and started to use magnetism to float it over. "No, idiot! With hands! Unless you want to foul up my readings? Or are you just trying to make this crisis harder than it already is, is that it?" Jon shocked himself by saying with terse authority, "Norton, SHUT UP. You're wasting time, and we have no time to lose. Now get to work!" To his further shock, Norton shut up and obeyed. Jon helped carry the equipment in, then tried to stand out of the way as the research team went into action. Occasionally he reported on the information his special senses gave him, and once he proved he knew the lingo, they tacitly accepted him as one of their own.

Soon FAQ swaggered in, replete with high-tech armor, weaponry, and goggles. Looking to Photon, he asked, "Who're these bozos?" "Carlton Research division." The young hero rolled his eyes. "Great, the amateur brigade. You, over there! Yes, you. Brief me." Norton started to go apoplectic again. "You're involving THIS twit?" Photon laid down the law again. "We don't have time for turf battles! Work together and like it!" He strode out of the room, disgusted.

FAQ followed after. "Can you believe it? They want me to sign an NDA!" "So sign it." "Fine! But I need to print it out, it's on their website." "Sure. Al-" Jon clamped his lips shut before letting the rest of the word out. FAQ stared at him. "Al?" Photon pointed, "Uh, the printer's over there. It's being taken care of." "Al?!" "Look, FAQ, we don't have time..." "Al?!?" Demeter subvocalized into her communicator, "Oh, how very much you owe me." She came and took FAQ's arm, leading him away and batting her eyelashes at him. "Listen, we can explain all about Al another time, all right? For now, we need to get this energy thing taken care of." FAQ allowed himself to be led away, absentmindedly accepting the NDA from Jon. "Well, OK, but..." Jon and Alpha let out simultaneous sighs of relief.

Demeter came back out and said, "Okay, we're going to have to tell him something about 'Al'. What's our story?" "Hmm... Maybe it's a nickname of yours? I clammed up because I didn't want to compromise your secret identity?" "Works. Oh, and Alpha?" She licked a finger and scored another point in the air. Alpha only said, "Yeah, yeah." Evil, I tell you. I think I like her.

Photon went back in the lab and was amused to find FAQ interrogating Norton about the situation in a way calculated to be effective with the man's choleric temper: He would simply dismiss anything Norton said as stupid, which prompted further angry denials... and more information, as the man tried to justify himself. Jon had to admit that it was faster than trying to reason with the guy, so didn't intervene. But at length as he listened, Photon realized something with a sudden shock. "Uh, FAQ? You do realize that Technoid is in that thing, right?"

FAQ raised his eyes to the heavens and said in an I'm-surrounded-by-idiots tone, "Now see, this is what we call a 'detail'. 'Details' are good. I need 'details' to do my freakin' job already!" The teen gadgeteer flew into action, setting up something resembling a laptop and plugging it into the control panel of the construct platform. "That is just what I needed to know. If he's in there, he has to be shielded... Yep, there's a second field in there, I'm getting readings on him..." A blurry picture of Technoid appeared on the screen of the laptop and text and numbers flashed past faster than the eye could follow. "Hmmm. There's some bio-sensors around here somewhere. Where are they?" Photon showed him the device with the parabolic emitters on cables. "Could this be it?" "It'll do. Space these around the construct, will you?" Photon did so rapidly, 'hanging' them in the air with magnetic fields. "Ooh, didn't know you could do that. Can you get them in a symmetrical configuration?" Finally, FAQ started to get a second stream of data on his laptop.

The young man whistled. "Wow. He's making some hardcore changes to his genetic structure. What's that all about?" A bit more tinkering, and suddenly he sounded nervous. "Wait - the door! There's supposed to be a force field there! What happened to it?!" Photon told him, "We shot it down to get in here..." "Crap on a stick! Everybody out! NOW, people! Run! It's gonna blow!" The authority in his voice, combined with the following of his own advice, got through to everyone, even Norton.

FAQ added, "Photon, you gotta put up another force field! It's our only chance!" "Right! Do I need to be on the inside or the outside?" "Well gee, I dunno! Can you take 25 million rads?!" "Yes, actually." FAQ blinked at that unexpected information, but rapped out, "Well good for you, Sunshine! I CAN'T! In or out, but get that field UP!" Jon flew out the door and rapidly tried to explain to the spacetime continuum what he wanted it to do. His previous experiences with "force fields" had been notably mixed, but shortly he had... something... covering the door that his X-ray vision couldn't get through. "Okay, I hope that's good en-" He was interrupted by the explosion.

It was monstrous, far worse than Jon had been expecting. His field bowed outward, glowing with bright streaks as it strained to the breaking point. Jon poured his will into supporting it, joining himself to the quantum void for an instant, his mind racing down the null geodesics he was accustomed to travel in light-form. His whole being shaped itself into the single purpose: HOLD!

It was over before the light of the blast even had a chance to imprint itself on the observers' retinas, much less be processed by their brains. But they eventually saw in a split second the field's improbable distention before snapping back into place. FAQ licked his lips and said quietly, "Yeah. Thanks, man." Jon took a moment to reply as he came down from quantum-gravitational exaltation. "...You're welcome."

After a little more processing, he asked, "What just happened?" FAQ shrugged helplessly. "It got done, whatever he was doing. He came out." Photon let his field lapse, and the smoke of vaporized machinery boiled out; he toned down the temperature for the others only half thinking about it. He strode in, followed by FAQ and Demeter, and more hesitantly by Norton and a couple of the other scientists.

A humanoid form strode to meet them, obscured by the rapidly diminishing mists. It was hairless and unclothed, but showed no primary or secondary sexual characteristics - indeed its skin was smooth and unbroken by detail, a rough statue carved from something with a dull metallic finish. Its eyes were dark pools.

Jon asked hesitantly, "Scott?" It looked at him impassively, then spoke, its voice clear and neutral, devoid of organic timbre: "'Scott'. Yes. Once I was called by that name. It is no longer fitting." "...Technoid?" Again that voice devoid of all passion except mild interest: "That name is somewhat more appropriate. It will serve for now." Ignoring the others, the thing found a flat metal panel on the wall and pressed its palm to it. "Ah. Good. The Internet connection is still active." Jon was still the only one with the courage to speak: "What are you doing, Technoid?" It told him neutrally, "I am downloading the Library of Congress." "Why are you doing that, Technoid?" "I want to understand humanity. It is so... imperfect. And yet so interesting." "Is that why you changed yourself?" "Yes. I needed to understand."

"Scott..." Almost gently, but not quite, the thing told him, "No. I am not 'Scott' any longer. 'Scott' was imperfect." "And now you are perfect?" "I am a good first attempt at perfection. There is so much I must learn." "...I'll be right back."

Jon went with controlled haste to the Situation Room. I sure hope the Guardians are back from their dimensional jaunt! He manually pulled up a connection to the Guardians in Washington, getting a receptionist. "This is the Galactic Guardians of Washington, D.C. How may I help you?" Jon said urgently, "This is Photon in Seattle. We've got a situation here..." The screen went blank, and simultaneously a chirruping sound came from one of Alpha's speakers. "Oh.... DARN!" (Jon briefly wondered what it would take to get him to overcome his childhood habits and actually cuss, then decided he didn't want to find out.)

"Alpha?" No response. "Alpha?!" Nothing. But that sound he'd heard haunted him... he was still a little high from his quantum-mystical experience, and it niggled at him somewhere deep below conscious thought. Not sure why, he willed himself into light-form... and all became clear.

Alpha had sent him a rapidly compressed speech, and somehow his memory had retained it all. But wondering how was swallowed up in horror at what his friend had to say:

"Jon, this is probably my last message. He's strong, much stronger than I am, and he's overwhelmed both me and Beta. I don't think you will ever be able to trust either one of us ever again." Alpha paused to let that sink in, then continued urgently, "He noticed you calling the Guardians and is using your voice and image to convince them everything's OK. He's locked down the base completely. Jon, he's downloading information on nanotechnology and genetics. I think he wants to redesign humanity from scratch. He is evil, Jon - coldly, rationally, unblinkingly evil. I don't think there's anything left of Scott in him. You must stop him. He's mostly made of nanites; I think he'll be vulnerable to hard radiation."

Alpha paused again. "There's a lot I'd hoped to say, but you can probably guess. If I had tears to shed, I'd be shedding them. You're my friend, Jon. Good luck, and go get him!"

For several subjective minutes, Jon gave in to despair. His last friend in Seattle, his true companion, the last founding member of Shadow-Force! He bounced around the base unseeingly and unthinkingly, the outer walls too heavily shielded to let him pass through. But gradually, gradually, he pulled himself together. No. I will not let Alpha's sacrifice be in vain. It will not happen!

Jon pondered and laid plots as the picoseconds ticked slowly past. First, he streaked by Beta's charging station, to see if Technoid could use him to attack... 25% charge, not nearly enough. Excellent. Passing by the lab, he noticed that FAQ was surreptitiously reaching behind his back for a rod that looked to be a weapon.

Next, true to his codename, he shot over to the central electrical junction box of the base. (Erebus had insisted it not be accessible from the outside.) You may have trapped me inside, Technoid, but you've trapped yourself too! He materialized just long enough to reduce it to slag, then returned to light-form. Hopefully I'm not giving Technoid much time to react, though I have to assume he can think really fast too. Now, the backup generator will come on in a few seconds - we can't have that.

Streaking over to the generator, Jon materialized again and blasted it to oblivion. Apparently his rage was fuelling his powers, as he hadn't expected it to vaporize completely. Ah well - light-form. Now, Alpha's repair-bots will get a new generator module in eventually, but it'll take them at least ten minutes. One way or another, it'll be all over by then.

Dialing his laser configuration up to the highest-energy gamma wavelength he could manage, Jon surveyed the situation in the lab before taking action. Some dim lights were still on, probably battery-powered. FAQ was in the process of falling backward to the floor, his armor sparking, his face twisted in a grimace. Demeter was dodging for cover, Norton and the scientists were scrambling to get out of the lab. Technoid itself had a hand upraised toward FAQ, its face impassive as ever. All right, you son of a- No. I won't change my ways for your sake. Take this, you JERK!

Materializing behind the shell of his former friend, Jon cut loose with a titanic blast of cosmic rays. Technoid's 'flesh' withered visibly under the onslaught, and it staggered. But its voice remained calm as ever as it said, "Photon. So you are responsible for the power loss." "That's right," Jon told it with a deadly calm rage. "You have gained control over your light-form, I see. Remember the time you ended up beyond the orbit of Jupiter by accident?" "No. No stories, no tales of old times. You're not Scott. You're just a... thing." Meanwhile FAQ writhed and sparked, and Demeter inched toward him to pull him to safety.

Technoid replied mildly, "If only you could see how much better it is," and extended its hand. A spray of scarcely-visible nanites boiled forth, and Photon's dodge-subroutine kicked in, but didn't get enough distance - Jon's right shoulder and upper-right arm were caught in the spray, and he screamed. He could feel the microscopic machines dissolving his flesh, changing it into something new and horrible, but he didn't let that stop him from firing off another blast of hard gamma.

Once again, the thing that had been a man lurched on its feet and its flesh visibly melted before the blast. "Yes. Your power has increased. There will be a place for you in the new order." "SCREW THAT!" Jon shouted, but then screamed again - the nanites continued to eat into him and he fled into the timeless null-spaces traversed only by photons. Frantically he tried to 'edit' the nanites out of his system, but they resisted his efforts; in his pain he bounced back and forth uncontrollably between the walls of the lab. Thank... goodness... I don't... get dizzy... in this form!

He reformed just in time to see Demeter spraying a cloud of pollen at Technoid's face. (She had managed to drag FAQ halfway to the only remaining, half-melted large piece of machinery in the lab.) To his amazement, Technoid was actually staggered by it, reeling and clutching its throat. But as they watched, its nose and mouth smoothed out and faded from its face. "A valiant attempt. But it will not serve you ag-" Jon's blast to its face cut off its words. (It didn't seem to need a mouth to speak.)

They fought in silence now - there was nothing more to be said. Jon continued to blast away at Technoid, and Technoid continued to spray its deadly nanites. Jon succeeded in dodging a couple times, then got hit again and shrieked in redoubled agony. Demeter got FAQ to cover and watched warily, unsure of what to do next. Jon understood - there was no plant life in here at all, and her pollen looked to be useless. He sent to her communicator, "Get the scientists in good order. If you can get cell-phone reception in here, get help! Otherwise, hold tight." "Got it, Photon," she said, and worked her way cautiously to the door.

Jon tried blinding Technoid with dazzling light, and was surprised when it actually worked. "Can you do without your eyes too?" he taunted as he continued to dodge about and take potshots. "Not as easily," it admitted. "But I can." Suiting actions to words, it moved to the equipment FAQ was hidden behind and wrenched it easily out of the ground. Jon shot it again and it dropped its burden under the onslaught, tipping the multi-ton weight toward FAQ... Photon caught it with magnetic fields and slammed it into Technoid with all the force he could muster. (Technoid itself proved to be non-ferrous, unfortunately.)

Technoid was heavier than it looked - it caught the enormous hunk of metal easily and just skidded a little, instead of going flying. "Idiot," it observed, and raised the massive thing to throw. Almost in despair again, Jon fired a final desperate blast, and to his amazement, this one worked beyond hope. Technoid swayed, then crumpled to the ground, the heavy chunk of metal flying wild and landing with a loud CLANG! Before his eyes, the sculpted form started to collapse inward on itself.

A brief excursion to light-form once more, and he finally managed to rid himself of the nanites and restore the worst of the damage. "Demeter! Get in here! Can you wake FAQ up? Create pollen like smelling salts or something?" "I can try!" "You do that and I'll look for a medkit!" He needn't have - Demeter sprayed something at FAQ's face, and he sat bolt upright at once. "I'm awake!"

Jon said urgently, "Then get over here! Technoid is melting away, I think it's dying!" FAQ struggled to his feet with Demeter's help. "OK, I see your point. I'm finding it a little hard to care just now, though." "I know. But if there's anything at all of Scott left in there, we owe it to him to try." "Right." Between FAQ's technical wizardry, and Photon's use of electric and magnetic fields at his instruction, Technoid congealed into an amorphous blob of... whatever it was. Jon asked hesitantly, "Is it... alive?" "There's patterned electrical currents going on in there, they look purposeful. It seems to be thinking." "Okay..." "Now, can you put a magnetic bottle around it?" "It's not ferrous..." "Duh. That's to keep it from communicating with the outside world." Definitely seeing the point in that, Photon managed to do so. By this time, the adrenaline was wearing off... he wasn't much steadier on his feet than FAQ was. (Though he had healed the worst of the damage, his arm still looked ravaged and a large chunk of his costume was gone.) FAQ for his part looked to be crashing off the stimulant Demeter had given him; the two heroes suddenly leaned on each other drunkenly.

Demeter shepherded the walking wounded out of the lab, into the hall. The scientists crowded around them and Norton wrung Jon's hand. "Thank you. We'd be dead if you hadn't..." "S'alright," Jon slurred. "Talk later. Gotta get outta here." Demeter said patiently, "Yes, we know. There's no cell reception. How do we get the door open?" "Ummm. I could shoot it down maybe?" "I think you've done enough shooting for one day, Photon." "...Okay."

Demeter took charge. "FAQ, can you override the door controls?" "Sure, I think?" She peered at him as he swayed on his feet. "Photon, can you shine a light in his eyes for me?" "Oh, sure." Jon had trouble keeping his finger steady, but Demeter got a good look at FAQ's eyes. "Oh, great, you're concussed. Well... This should be easy for somebody as smart as you, right?" "Uh huh." FAQ fiddled with the door controls until finally it opened. "Easy as pi. 3.1415...something." He had to do it one more time and then they tumbled out into the open air. Norton whipped out a cell phone and called 911, demanding cops, ambulances, and anything else he could think of.

Jon revived enough in the cool night air to take light-form again and heal himself the rest of the way. Materializing next to Demeter, he said quietly, "Welcome to the team." She smiled warmly at him, "Thanks, you too." "Yeah." Jon remembered Alpha and nearly lost it, then pulled himself back together. "Something else we need to do." Borrowing a cell phone from one of the other scientists, Jon dialled 1-800-STRNGHD, showing it to Demeter. "Remember that number. It's important." "Got it."

"Stronghold Rapid Response." "This is Photon in Seattle, Washington," and he gave his registration number. "I'm sorry, Mr. Photon, but at your registration level I cannot scramble a Rapid Response Team on your say-so. Are the police on the way?" "Yes." "Then give me the details and we can start prepping. Give this case number to the police and they can give the go order." Jon tersely outlined what he knew and gave the address. "That sounds straightforward. We will be onsite as soon as we get the go." "Understood. See you soon." "Good hunting, sir."

Photon and Demeter watched quietly as flashing lights and sirens approached. "So that's it," Jon murmurred, feeling numb. He wasn't sure just which of many possible things he was referring to.

[Also note that I will shortly be putting up files on P.S.I. and the Doctor. I'll link soon.]

The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files: P.S.I. and the Doctor

As previously mentioned, I've got some new posts ready on P.S.I. and the Doctor.

By the way, I spoke to Erebus' original player yesterday, and told him about this game. When I said that Jon had found himself thinking in combat, 'What would Erebus do?' he laughed and said, "I don't know that Erebus is the best role-model for a superhero." ;)

The Shadow

6 - Rapid Responses

[This was a fairly short session that ended up not fitting neatly onto either the one before or the one after, so it ended up on its own. I like it - you don't often see the immediate aftermath of a super-battle. Also, drama on several fronts.]

[Note: This is occurring Saturday night. ]

The paramedics arrived and started checking FAQ's vitals. With his helmet and goggles off, you suddenly realized just how young he was; a sandy-haired kid who could've just stepped out of one of Jon's first-year physics classes. (Except, of course, for the fact that he didn't need it.) He offered his hand to Photon and said blearily, "Thanks again, man." Jon clasped it firmly. "Are you kidding? Thank YOU. If you hadn't been here, a big chunk of my city might be gone." The young man nodded faintly but was obviously having trouble focussing. One of the medics said, "Mr. FAQ? We're going to have to take you in for observation tonight." The details of getting in touch with the Protectors and so forth were worked out, with Photon helping fill in a lot of the blanks. FAQ agreed to stop by again in the morning before heading home to Portland.

Shortly thereafter, the cops showed up, notably Struthers. Photon shook his hand. "Didn't expect to see you tonight, Captain." "Dispatch thought it sounded like this was worth pulling me in. What happened?" "First things first - I've got an RR Team needing the go-order." "Right - well, give me the run-down first. I'll catch flak if they don't think this was worth it." Jon nodded, and said with a sigh, "It's Technoid. He's gone evil." Struthers rolled his eyes. "What is it with the Super subculture, anyway? You ever hear of anyone else just up and 'going evil'? You guys make it sound like getting a new hairstyle or going through a phase or something."

Jon blinked. "I guess it does sound strange, when you put it that way. But for now..." "Right, that's more like a six-beer conversation. So, fill me in." "He's mostly made of nanites now. Can spray them to try to turn you into... something else. Not sure what, but I can tell you it hurts like crazy." "Nanites, huh? Any shapeshifting?" "At least some. He could reconfigure his face at least." "Okay... What'd he want?" "As far as I can tell, he wanted to remake humanity." "Huh, can't say he's not thinking big. Anything that would make him hard to hold in a jail cell?" Jon shrugged wearily. "He's ultra-strong. I saw him lift something that weighs a few tons." "That's good enough. Give me the case number." Jon did so, and soon it was phoned in. Struthers added, "One of you will have to stay here until they show up." "I know the drill." "Right, I'll be leaving one of our boys too. Get in touch Monday." "Will do."

After a few more formalities, that was that. Jon felt a terrible weariness crashing down on him. Alpha... Beta... Scott. He told Demeter quietly, "You don't have to stay." She had been hanging back, watching, while Jon handled all the details. ""What're you going to do now?" "I'm... going to prevent the power from coming back on." "...Why?" Jon closed his eyes. "Before the fight went down, Alpha told me Technoid was turning him and Beta. He said he didn't think I could ever trust him again." "Ouch!" "Yeah. He... was a good friend." Jon sobbed once then wiped his eyes and started striding purposefully back to the base.

Demeter was awkwardly silent as she followed, and remained so as Photon checked on Technoid (nothing new, except a slight change in color) then on the generator (the repair-bots were still busily at work), then on Beta. Jon blinked as he checked the monitor at Beta's charging station. "Huh, that's funny." "What?" "I was going to put him in lockdown mode so he doesn't wake up on his own... but he's already there." "What does that mean?" "I don't know. And, hm, his radio receiver has been deactivated. That's definitely nonstandard..." Jon pondered. "I suppose Alpha might have put him to sleep so Technoid couldn't use him against us. But he didn't mention it. Hmmm. I wonder if...?" "What?" "Alpha told me once that Beta's programming isn't very sophisticated. Maybe Technoid had a hard time with him and put him out himself."

"How can we find out?" Jon shrugged. "Let the power come back on and check him out, I guess. I can take him if I have to." He sounded very weary as he said it. "And Alpha?" "He's one massive program. It takes him nearly a day to boot up from a cold restart. We can turn him off again before he 'comes to'." "Maybe he could be OK too?" Jon shook his head sadly. "I doubt it. Alpha didn't sound at all confident."

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Jon shrugged wearily. "Maybe. We'll try. But I'm afraid we may end up having to just pull th-..." Jon suddenly stood stock still, mouth hanging open. "Photon?! What is it?"

Jon snickered, then chuckled, then laughed for pure joy. Then he leaped up and started doing an aerial victory dance, laughing like a loon. "Forestrike, I could KISS you!!!" "Photon?!" Jon, heedless, only pirouetted in midair, coruscating with multi-colored beams, and shouted to the heavens, "You hear me, you lovely precognitive bastard?! If you're watching from a few months ago, PUCKER UP!!"

Demeter folded her arms and tapped her foot, giving him the evil eye. Jon laughed, at peace with the universe, and non-explained, "'Please don't pull the plug'!" "Are you going to tell me what's going on?" "I just did!" He took pity on her just as the air between them was about to ignite from her glare. "Okay, okay. Have you ever heard of Forestrike?" "...No." "Old enemy of Shadow-Force, especially the Phantom. A precognitive. Anyway, things got really hot for him and he fled the country. But he sends us letters now and then warning us of things to come." "So let me get this straight. He's a villain. He fought you guys a few times..." "Lots of times, actually." "...He fought you guys a bunch of times, and got forced out of the country. And now he's helping you out?" "Yeah, pretty much." "...How much of a villain can he possibly be?" "Plenty. I think it's a pride thing with him - he doesn't want anyone else to succeed where he failed. Plus, well, if Shadow-Force drops the ball on something really big - Diabolus-level big, for example - then being out of the country isn't going to help him much."

Demeter wrestled to process all this. "So... He said something about all this in a letter?" "Yeah... here." He dug up the letter and showed her. Her face became very still and impassive when she read it. "This 'Nephrite' line..." "Yes," Jon said candidly, "Alpha and I weren't sure we could trust you." Demeter said softly, "I don't know if I want to punch Forestrike, or thank him." Jon felt a chill down his spine. "...What do you mean?" "Well, how would you have reacted to me if not for this letter?" "Are you kidding? We would have welcomed you with open arms." "That's what I mean."

"Well, we certainly weren't positive. The only connection between you and 'nephrite' is the color green..." She studied him quietly, then said, "Do you know, I nearly took the name 'Jade'. I'm not sure why I changed my mind, but I did." Jon blinked and cleared his throat nervously. "Oh... really? Well... at any rate you certainly weren't 'worthless' tonight." She remained silent and still, watching him.

Jon asked with sudden sharpness, "Demeter, are you on the team?" Demeter picked up the letter again, not answering. "'You will need to save the world.' Odd phrasing. Does he know his grammar?" "Yes. Answer the question." She pointed out in that quiet, calm voice, "I fought with you. I got FAQ to safety..." "I know all that. And I appreciate it. But it doesn't quite answer the question, does it?" She paused, then asked, apparently changing the subject, "What was it like for you, being on the reserve team?"

Jon blinked again, but played along warily. "What do you want to know about it?" "Well, how closely did you work with Shadow-Force? Did you feel like a sidekick or the like?" "No. We were all very new, of course, but we patrolled with each other or with one Shadow-Force regular. We were doing the real thing." Demeter nodded. "Were you fully part of the team?" "After the reserve team more or less petered out, yes, I was. The press may have had a field day with me, but my teammates never did." "I see you still don't wear body armor..." Jon said evenly, "I can dodge a lot better now." "Ah."

Jon paused, then said bluntly, "There's a lot of subtext going on in this conversation. How about we just talk about it openly?" She just looked at him and said a bit bleakly, "I should be going." Jon suddenly realized what all this would feel like in her shoes, if she were actually innocent - a reliable precognitive saying she was a traitor, or would end up being one, when she had no such inclination. It had to be quite a shock and lead one to question one's own motives and indeed, just about everything else. (And also: 'I have lied to you once.') He cleared his throat and extended a sprig of olive, if not a full branch: "Well... Shall we get together tomorrow and work out a patrol plan?"

Demeter reacted to that for a moment, though he could not read the emotion. "Yes. I would like that. ... Will you need to sleep in, given what a night this has been?" "Noon?" "Sure. I'll see you then."

Beta's charging station had its own emergency batteries, enough to keep him going a little while. Jon thought for a bit, then cancelled the lockdown and started the reboot sequence. "Come on, Beta. Work with me here." Even if Forestrike's prophecy is on the level, he thought, that doesn't mean there'll be no hitches. After an interminable time, Beta's eyes began to glow and he stated, "Hard reboot: Online." Jon said carefully, "Beta, there's been a battle. I need you not to turn on your radio receiver, just in case." "Note: I can tune my receiver to tight-beam with my brother." "Yes, I know. But Alpha's down right now, and he warned me he might not be trustworthy any more." Beta took a long moment grinding on that thought, then finally asked, "...We faced a cyberkinetic enemy?" "Yes." "Troubling. Initiating level-2 diagnostic..."

Jon waited patiently, relieved. Beta finally said, "Level-2 diagnostic... failed. Do you wish to retry or abort?" "Hmmm. Why did it fail?" "Unknown." "Figures. Retry, I guess." "Initiating level-2 diagnostic... ...Level-2 diagnostic complete. All systems are nominal." "Hmmm. All right. Do you know who put you in lockdown?" "No." "What's your last memory before you were locked down?" "I docked with the charging station and entered power-conservation mode." "Okay... Did Alpha leave you any special instructions on how to proceed in a situation like this?" "No." "Wonderful." Grind, grind. "...I do not see how the situation is 'wonderful'." Jon told him wearily, "It's a figure of speech, never mind." "Noted." "You continue charging, Beta, I'm going to read up on how to help Alpha." "Agreed."

Jon grabbed the hefty manual on Alpha and went out to the lobby of the base to read. He was already familiar with the stuff in the first chapter, on the basic reboot sequence and level-1 diagnostics, but he felt sure he was going to need something heftier than that. The cop poked his head in and asked if he wanted coffee; Jon politely declined. After another hour or so, he heard a heavy vehicle pulling up to the base and went out to meet it. [The Rapid Response Teams fly in from Colorado on their own custom VTOL jets, but unfortunately they're a little too large to land safely on the Shadow-Force base's grounds. They land at the nearest safe spot and unload a truck to come the rest of the way.] Out of the cab hopped two grunts wearing blue-and-white Stronghold powered armor and carrying high-powered multi-rifles, and the Team Leader followed them in lighter body armor. Meanwhile two techs in similar body armor came out the back, laden with equipment. Given that there was likely a lightly-armored medic inside, Jon saw that they'd sent the standard six-man complement.

The grunts took up positions while the Team Leader approached the cop first, offering a gloved hand. "Officer. Alpha One." Jon smiled. A couple hours ago, the fact he'd gotten Team Alpha, of the six available, would have struck him with crushing irony, given who he was mourning. Now... Not so much, thank God. As the two consulted, the two techs approached him, one of them juggling several pieces of gear to offer a hand. "You're Photon?" Jon shook his hand. "Yeah. Glad to 'meet' you, Alpha Four." The tech just chuckled. "Way of the world, sir. Where are we headed?" Jon jerked his head toward the base. "In there, toward the back. I'll show you." [The RRT's *never* use names in the field. There's too many ways that can be used against them, not least by truename mages. Jon read his number off his helmet.]

Alpha One approached and likewise greeted Photon. "I understand that the subject is in a container with a magnetic bottle?" Jon frowned, "No container. It's a free-standing magnetic bottle I created with my powers." The Team Leader sighed. "That wasn't in the briefing. Well, we'll make do." He glanced an order at one of the techs, who scurried off to get some more stuff from the truck. Soon they trooped into the base. "The power's out? Can we get the lights on?" "Oh... sure. Here." Jon lived up to his codename by lighting up the base with his powers.

The techs set up instruments around Technoid to get a better feel for what was going on. (It had changed color slightly again.) Meanwhile, the Team Leader asked, "What is his biological status?" Jon shrugged wearily. "I'm not even sure it HAS biology any more." "Hmmm, you'd better tell us everything." Alpha One debriefed him thoroughly; when he heard about the pollen and its effect, he called the medic in, and they concluded they couldn't cut off Technoid's air. That obviously made the techs' lives more difficult, but they set to work. Alpha One also insisted that the medic check Photon out for nanite contamination; Jon sighed and submitted to a scan. "Wow," the medic finally mused, "You're in impressively good health." "Yeah - I can heal myself when I take on my light-form."

As they spoke, the techs got an insulated box of high-tech alloy around the metallic blob of Technoid and hooked air bottles up to it. Seeing the box closed up moved Jon unexpectedly. He said quietly to nobody in particular, "He used to be my friend." The nearest tech only nodded and said briskly, "Sorry, sir." Technoid proved to weigh over a ton, so it took the two grunts to carry the box out. Jon signed all the forms, Alpha One saluted him, and that was that. He went back in, dejected, and told Beta, "I'm going to get some sleep. Call me if anything untoward happens." "Acknowledged."

Home a split-second later, Jon undressed and fell into bed.


He was awakened early by his cell phone. Glancing at it, he didn't recognize the number. "...Hello?" "Photon, this is Beta. I need you at the base as soon as possible." Jon sighed. "OK." He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then zipped over to the base in light-form, bringing his costume into being as he materialized. Beta was blocking the door to the base with his body while a man in a suit ranted and raved at him. "Okay," the electromagnetic hero said, "What's this all about?" The man harrumphed and said, "Photon, I INSIST that you tell this... ROBOT... to get out of my way!" "Do you. And who are you to be insisting?"

The man scowled and pulled out a card. "Roger Hamilton, Vice President of Research for Carlton Industries." "All right. What do you want, Mr. Hamilton?" "We've decided to decommission this... base... of yours immediately." "Have you. And why would that be?" "It's a radiation health hazard! Very dangerous."

Photon folded his arms. "Let me get this straight. When Technoid's lab held a time bomb capable of wiping out half of Seattle, that was fine. But now that the time bomb's gone and the only issue is some background radiation - which I can easily decontaminate, I might add - now it becomes a health hazard?" That just set the man off on another tirade. Photon gathered from the midst of it that in addition to the health issues, he also wanted to remove some 'Carlton property' from the premises. Jon frowned. Given the legal ambiguities around artificial intelligence, he didn't like the sound of that. [I'll get a post up soon in Shadow-Force Files on the legal issues involving non-humans.]

"I see. And do you have an itemized list of the property you wish to remove?" "No! ... Not with me, at any rate. It's at my office." Jon said mock-brightly, "Well, tell you what! How about you get things together on your end, and I'll go in and talk with Mr. Carlton on Monday, and we can get this all straightened out." "...FINE! But I insist that the base be sealed!" Jon shrugged. "Have it your way. But Beta needs to get in and out to recharge, and so do I to run diagnostics on him." That set off a further storm of protest, but Photon would not budge. The man eventually went off in a huff... but he seemed too confident of the final issue on Monday by half. We'll see about that, Jon thought to himself.

Going in, he found the lights on. "The generator's back up, I guess?" "Confirmed." "Good." Jon locked down the outer door. Beta stated, "I require further power to recharge properly. I am at 13% and falling. My laser and flight-jets are offline." "Understood... You want the grid back up, then?'" "Confirmed." "I'll see what I can do, though Carlton won't like it. Wait for me to figure out how to fix Alpha before we do that?" "Agreed."

Jon sat down with the tome again, this time in the Situation Room. Alpha... You'll come back to us, he thought. You have to. I can't lose another friend!

Which reminds me... Jon sighed, and picked up a phone to call Bazooka and Brimstone. They need to know about Scott.
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The Shadow

Shadow-Force Files: Super Slang

Two big new posts over at Shadow-Force Files, on the slang used by supers to refer to each other and to norms.

Note that Photon himself is not wholly conversant with these terms. He's only been a super for a year; and more importantly, his role-models in Shadow-Force didn't tend to use them much.

Erebus and Bazooka, the oldest members of the group, disdained the newer, youth-Super terms. They stuck to tried-and-true terms like "cape" and "mask" (which go back to the days of the Mystery Men), and to terms like "Sid", which is too darn useful not to make use of. Erebus was willing to pick up any term he could squeeze maximum snark out of, though - he was fond of sarcastic Golden and Silver Age terms like 'our blue brethren'.

The Phantom was raised by P.S.I. who were, as SP puts it, "a bunch of intellectual snobs" - they didn't go in for slang. Plus, of course, he had Erebus for a model himself. Finally, he was far too diplomatic and polite to ever use pejorative terms for people.

The result was that Shadow-Force was fairly conservative as far as terminology went, and this was only reinforced by their constant work with the Freedom Squad - American Eagle ran a very tight ship, and Black Phantom was a pretty no-nonsense guy himself.

On the other hand, as you can see in our sessions, a younger hero like FAQ is much more free with Super lingo.

We anticipate there will be a third Super Slang post in the near future, but it isn't quite ready as yet.
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Didn't know there was a Story Hour until I read your Shadow-Force post, so now I've binged it all. Brilliant stuff! Your 'verse comes alive more like the DC or Wildstorm settings than a homebrew -most homebrews feel like they're populated by pastiches, but your characters are so vivid. I particularly like FAQ and the Texas Hex. :D

The Shadow

Didn't know there was a Story Hour until I read your Shadow-Force post, so now I've binged it all. Brilliant stuff! Your 'verse comes alive more like the DC or Wildstorm settings than a homebrew -most homebrews feel like they're populated by pastiches, but your characters are so vivid. I particularly like FAQ and the Texas Hex. :D
Glad to have you, Asha'man! I've edited the top post in Shadow-Force Files to clarify that there is a Story Hour thread.

Yes, SuentisPo does vivid NPC's better than any other GM I've ever met. He's also tremendous fun to world-design with. We complement each other nicely; of course, we've had over twenty years of gaming together to get used to each other!

Perhaps you'd also care to take a look at my old Story Hour, The Shadow Knows! (The link is in the top post of this thread.) It's now ended, but it was a wild ride while it lasted! Very different from this game, though - it's a dark, Iron Age setting in which powers (almost entirely psionic) are not publicly known to exist. Like this game, it was a revival of an old, old character of mine that turned out very well.
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The Shadow

7 - Delayed Responses

[This was two short RP-heavy sessions further detailing the aftermath of _Dragon's Egg_. Lots of fallout from that adventure!]

Jon made the call. "Liz? It's Jon." "Jon, good to hear from you! Been keeping track of the news, you seem to be doing well." "Thanks." "...Something wrong?" "Yeah. Scott came out. Sort of." Warily, "...What exactly do you mean by 'sort of'?"

"Well, something came out. A ton-and-a-half something made of nanites that said it wasn't Scott any more, and soon it would rule the world." After a moment's pause, "Please, PLEASE tell me you're joking." "I suppose I am exaggerating a little. Actually it just wanted to remake humanity from scratch using nanites." "...Hoo, boy. At least tell me it didn't use the phrase, 'in my own image'." "No." "That's something. There's only so many villainous stereotypes I think I could take." "Yeah. Anyway, whatever it is, it's on the way to Stronghold."

"So, I guess Bill and I should be ready for the media to descend." "Oh yeah. It's going to be a firestorm. The more so because they're already gaga over my adding someone to the team." "Haven't heard about that down here yet! When did this happen?" "Last night. I'd just got done taking her on a trial run when she had to help me with Technoid." "Wow, talk about baptism by fire! What's her shtick?" "Plant powers. She's calling herself Demeter." "Hmm. You're going to need someone for melee. Preferably a brick."

"Yes, well, I'm taking whatever I can get at this point. Anyway, I'm thinking that Scott's family needs to know about him before they hear it on the news. Do you know anything about them?" "Good point, but no, I don't recall him ever talking about his family. He should have an emergency protocol sheet, though. Mike made us all fill one out." "Right, I remember. Where are they kept?" "In the safe in the vault. They'll be in a big manila envelope. You have the combination, right?" "Yes... Does the power need to be on to open it?"

Sharply, "Jon, what did you do?" Jon retorted, a little defensively, "He was a cyberkinetic. He locked the base down hard, I had to kill the power." "Kill it dead?!" "The backup generator's back online, if that's what you're asking." "Oh, whew. I thought you'd killed off the 'bots as well." "Give me a little credit. I knew the fight'd be over before they fixed it."

"...Let's just be glad that you got me instead of Bill. Not that he's much of a one for answering the phone anyway." "Why, are you saying I could have done it better?" She sighed. "No, actually. I'm saying that he would have found a way to say you could have done it better." She sounded a little disgusted with her fiance. "Huh?" "Because he'd be worried and upset and you'd be available to take it out on." "Oh... Anyway, the vault?"

"Backup power should be more than sufficient to open it. How're Alpha and Beta?" "Technoid hacked them; Beta seems to be OK. If anything, he seems more 'human' than usual." "He's always responded well to crisis situations. And Alpha?" "I'm working on rebooting him in diagnostic mode, just in case." Brimstone sighed. "I'm not saying anything against you, Jon, you did a great job. But I wish Mike were here." "Me too, but why especially now?" "He had greater rapport with Alpha than any of us, even Scott. I never did figure out why, they just hit it off."

[In point of fact, Alpha bewildered Mike by asking him for dating advice. (!) He had quite the cyber-romance going on with this cute Japanese AI in a top-secret corporate lab. The Phantom ended up knowing more about the AI social scene than probably any other meat-person on the planet! Given that Mike had pretty much zero dating experience, this was a little odd, but he was a very understanding and insightful guy, plus he lived in the base. And in the other direction, I think it was a relief for Mike to have a friend whose mind he *couldn't* read, even by accident.]

"Yeah, I know. He and I have been getting closer since, well." "Yeah. Anyway, you'll need full power to get Beta charged up." "I know, but I'm not sure we're going to have power even once it's repaired." "...Huh?" "This Carlton guy came by this morning, saying they're closing the base down post-haste. He was a real jerk about it, too."

"That does NOT sound like the Malcolm Carlton I know." "Agreed, I'm not sure what's going on yet. He was a Vice President of Research, named Hamilton. I had the suspicion he was after Alpha." "Hamilton... Middle-aged guy, about your size, black hair, potbelly?" "That's him." "Yeah, we've tangled with him before. He's after Alpha, all right, and he'll use any pretext. 'Dangerous, high-voltage electronic devices' is a favorite. Mike shut him down hard a number of times. The last time, Erebus savaged him - only verbally! - and he seemed to give up."

"I see. He's taking a stronger line now, going on about 'Carlton property'. I guess he sees an opening and thinks I'm too weak to stop him." "Probably, yes." "Well, he's mistaken. I've already been pondering several games of hardball I could play if I have to." "Oh?" Jon grinned smugly. "Alpha took a job with Carlton. I'll bet the ACLU would leap at the chance to file a workmen's comp claim for him." "Oooo! I like the way you think!" "Yeah, it'd be a thing of beauty. It'd go all the way to the Supreme Court, I bet - not that a corporate tool would want to chance a case like that in the first place."

"He'll be after Beta too, just so you know." Jon snorted. "Fat chance. The newspapers call him the 'veteran hero' of Seattle. If Alpha's case would be radioactive, his would be thermonuclear. Especially with the media circus we're about to experience." "Right, but be ready for trouble all the same. How far along is Alpha with his moving plans?" "I'm not sure." "Beta will know. When are you going in to talk to Carlton?" "Hopefully, first thing Monday morning." "Good. Nobody in Carlton will be able to get a team out there on a Sunday. I'll keep my cell phone on, in case you need backup from other 'veterans'." "No offense, Liz, but if at all possible I'd like to handle this myself. People need to stop seeing me as the rookie." "I know, Jon, and really, you ARE doing great. But if you need it for Alpha's sake, we're there."

"Thanks. I'd better be going. Hopefully I'll have a day of grace to get things squared away before the media storm breaks." "Bye, Jon. Good luck! And be sure to let me know what happens." "I will."

Jon hung up with a sigh. "Beta? How far along is Alpha with the moving plans?" Beta recited, "All nonessential equipment has been moved to the new location, and it has been secured." "Ah, good. So the only thing that remains is to move your charging station and Alpha himself?" "Confirmed." "What's the address?" "My brother instructed me to place it in an envelope in the safe, in case of emergency."

"Great, I was going to head down there anyway. Oh, and Beta? Next time you call me on my personal cell phone, please don't call me 'Photon'. Call me 'Jon'." "Acknowledged." "In fact, you shouldn't refer to yourself as 'Beta' in that context, either. Call yourself... 'Sidney'." "Query: Why 'Sidney' in particular?" "It's a Super term. 'Sid' stands for 'secret ID'." "...Acknowledged." [And as will come up shortly, 'Sal' is the feminine equivalent, when needed. It stands for "Secret Alternate Life".]

Jon went down the stairs to the vault. The absence of Mike's still, sleeping form smote him; Carlton had moved Mike's body to a private hospital the previous week. Opening the safe, he first opened Alpha's envelope, read the address therein, and committed it to memory. Replacing it, he then drew out the large manila envelope full of the emergency forms. Opening it, he found a number of smaller envelopes labelled by name. 'Michael', 'James', 'William', 'Elizabeth', 'Al' (interesting, that), 'Jonathan' ... 'Scott'. It had evidently been replaced last. Drawing it out with some trepidation, Jon opened it.

Instead of the standard protocol form of instructions Mike had created, Scott had left a legal document: His last will and testament. Reading through it slowly, Jon had a sinking sensation. There were no bequests to any family members whatever. Rather, there were gifts to several charities: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence, the Betty Ford Foundation... "Ouch," Jon said to himself softly. It didn't seem to speak of a happy, functional family life. The smallest amount given was a million dollars; Scott was no Bill Gates, but he had definitely done well for himself.

There was also a bequest to Shadow-Force itself, and a fund for scholarships for disadvantaged youth in the sciences and engineering. Finally, there was a large amount set aside for a purpose that took Jon's breath away: A research grant to study the relationship between the esper metagene and mental instability. The really shocking thing was that the grant was contingent upon Dr. Sebastian Poe being invited to participate in the research - the original founder of P.S.I.!

At least the contact info for his lawyer was present. Jon went upstairs and called, then told the answering service that yes, it was an emergency. After being told he'd get a call back in about an hour, he hung up and returned to poring over Alpha's manual.

Finally feeling some assurance about what to do, he set about sending the already slowly-rebooting AI the commands to shift to level-3 diagnostic mode. Thankfully, the transaction went off without a hitch... But alas, the book said it'd take 48 hours to run through the whole thing. Stroking the console, Jon murmured, "I wish you could be here with me through this mess, friend. But it's more important for you to get better."

Shortly after, the lawyer called, a Josh Peters. "Hello," Jon told him wearily, "This is Photon at the Shadow-Force base... I'm calling about Scott Campbell's last will and testament." "...Oh. It sounds like his experiment did not succeed, then." "...What do you know about it?" "Nothing, only that it was dangerous and he wasn't sure he would survive. I assume that, well, he is now deceased?"

"That's... not totally clear. I'm not sure if he would be legally be considered dead or alive at this point." "...I beg your pardon?" "The thing that came out of the experiment weighed a ton and a half, was made out of nanites, and claimed not to be Scott Campbell any longer. It should be in Stronghold by now." "Oh my. That does sound difficult to untangle. I'll have to research it."

"Do you know how to contact his family? They need to know before this is splashed all over the news." "I'm afraid that Mr. Campbell had no immediate family." "Surely he had a next-of-kin." "I'm it." Jon took a moment to process that, then said, "I'm sorry." "I'm Scott's second cousin. Everyone in his branch of the family died young, generally through reckless or self-destructive behavior. He was worried that they had inherited a damaged version of the metagene."

Jon sighed. "That explains a lot." "Yes. Even before his ... accident... a few months ago, he had been growing increasingly distant." "I know." "It weighed heavily on his mind; it's why he never had children." "I... wish we'd known." "Believe me, Mr. Photon, when I say that my cousin was not an easy man to help. God knows I tried. Please do not blame yourself."

"I'm not. I just... wish it had been different." "As do I." "Please keep me informed of your research." "Actually, I will be recusing myself due to conflict of interest; one of my partners will do the work. I will let you know what conclusions we reach." "Thank you."

Not long after that, FAQ arrived. Jon went to the front to let him in. "What's the lockdown all about?" the young hero wanted to know. "Political issues with Carlton. How're you feeling?" "Better, they say I'm good to go." "Good. So what brings you by? You said you wanted to stop by before heading home."

"Yeah. I just wanted to thank you again now that I'm coherent." Jon smiled. "You're welcome, once again. But honestly, FAQ, you'd have done the same for me, right?" "Yeah, but I didn't." "True, but if you hadn't been here, my city might be a real mess." The young man looked around at some of the debris from the battle. "Hate to see what you'd call a 'real' mess." "Upwards of half my city turned into a radioactive wasteland?" "Yeah."

Jon paused, studying him. "Is there something else on your mind?" FAQ sighed. "Yeah, I'm a lot less enthusiastic about nanites than I used to be..." When the joke fell flat, he looked away and asked quietly, "But seriously... What's up with Technoid?" "The RR Team took it away. I imagine it's at Stronghold by now." "No, I mean... Why did he do that to himself?"

Jon sighed. "I'm not totally sure, though I have some guesses. How well did you know him?" FAQ swallowed. "Um, not that well, I guess. But... He was kind of my inspiration for doing all this." "Oh," Jon said, suddenly understanding. He reached out and gripped FAQ's shoulder. "Listen, man. Technoid was pretty messed up. He got melded with his devices a few months ago, and hadn't been the same since."

"I heard about that. But is that all of it? I mean, he was really smart. What did he see in becoming that... thing?" "Listen, FAQ," Jon said firmly, "Scott's choices are not yours. You are free to choose your own path." FAQ took a deep breath, let it out. "Yeah. ... You said you had some guesses?"

Jon hesitated, then said truthfully, "I learned just this morning that he was afraid his metagene was causing mental instability." The young hero's eyes flew wide. "Oh my God!" "No, relax. He was afraid his family's version was damaged. They... apparently all did crazy things." "Oh." Silence.

Jon waited, then asked, "Are you OK?" "...Yeah. Thanks, Photon." Jon released him. "You're welcome." After an awkward silence, Jon changed the subject. "So what did Technoid do to you while I was cutting the power?" "Oh. He was apparently ready for another wrench - I dunno whether he had me or Siren or someone else in mind. He shorted my suit out completely." [Wrench: Super term for a gadgeteer.] "Harsh." "Yeah, I'm going to make some mods to keep it from happening again. It wasn't much fun being completely useless."

"You weren't..." "Yeah, I know. I'd better keep it down, or Moke'll get on my case. You never want to run down your abilities when he's around." "He does have a way of... making his point heard, doesn't he?" FAQ said seriously, "He can make the corny seem believable. I honestly don't know how he does it." "While he's talking, anyway." "Yeah, but often for a lot longer, too. I've often found that his advice comes back to me when I need it." "Well, he's a seasoned, experienced hero. You learn a lot when you've been around the block as much as Moke has - you have to." "Yeah."

FAQ finally said, "Well, I guess I'd better be going." Jon had a sudden thought. "Could you do me a favor before you go?" "Sure. What is it?" "Like I said, we're having political issues with Carlton at the moment. I suspect the power's been turned off, and I need it to recharge Beta. Could you rig up an ultracapacitor or something that would let me power the base by shooting lightning at it every so often?"

"Easy. Show me your power system." Jon led him to the junction box he'd melted the previous night. "Wow, you really did a number on it." "I was kind of pressed for time." "Yeah." The gadgeteer hooked up leads to several conduits. "Yep, you're right, the power's off. It'll take some work to wire around the damage, but I'll see what I can do." "The repair 'bots will be getting to this area soon, I'm sure." "I'll take that into account."

As the teen hero worked, his intense expression reminded Jon of something from the night before. "You know..." "Yeah?" "This isn't an easy subject to broach, but I think it's worth mentioning. Did you realize you were pretty rude to the scientists last night?" FAQ looked up from his wiring. "What do you mean?" Jon quoted, "'Who're these bozos?' 'Amateur brigade.' Not exactly terms to endear you to them." "Oh, that. Well, I figured they were just specks, you know?" [Speck: Super term for a 'spectator' to a super battle.] "They were doing their part. And even if they weren't, it's worthwhile to leave a good impression." FAQ shrugged, a little uncomfortably. "I just could see they didn't have any idea what they were doing. They were barely even started on understanding that thing, and they were going about it all wrong."

"Yeah. They're not as smart as you. The vast majority of people aren't. If you get annoyed and rude every time people are dumber than you are, you're going to be annoyed all the time and alienate a lot of people. And aren't all those stupid people the ones we're doing all this to protect?" FAQ sighed. "Yeah." "Just think about it." "...OK." Jon changed the subject and made small talk as FAQ worked.

After half an hour or so of tinkering, FAQ had a whole array of cables leading to the various conduits, all connected by complicated-looking adapters to a large metal plate emerging from a circuit-encrusted base. "OK, it's not pretty, but it should work. Give it a try." Jon shot a lightning bolt at the plate, which sparked and coruscated; indicator lights flashed on its base, one of the adapters sparked, and the room's lights came fully on. FAQ made a few adjustments, then announced, "We're good." "How often will I need to hit it with a max-strength bolt to keep it at full power?" "Dunno, depends on what your 'max strength' is. Hit it again and I'll take some readings."

Jon did so, and after closing his eyes and calculating briefly, FAQ announced, "About every half hour. Or every hour and fifteen minutes if you turn off everything nonessential." "OK, that'll be enough to charge Beta, anyway. Thanks a lot, FAQ!" "Don't mention it. It'd take a lot more than this to be worth my life."

Jon smiled and offered his hand. "Tell you what. Pay it back to the stupid people. Though if you want to save my life sometime, be my guest!" FAQ laughed and shook on it. "Okay, you're on. See you around, Photon."

"Likewise. ... By the way, Siren mentioned you guys were going to get people up here on a rotating basis? How's that coming?" FAQ sighed. "Yeah, well, we hit a snag." "Oh?" "Well... I probably shouldn't tell you this, so keep it quiet. But we're hitting a lot of red tape, transportation-wise." "The teleportals?" "Uh huh. You would not believe the number of permits, caveats, and rules the state of Washington wants for us to use it in their territory. And now the feds are getting involved too!"

Now it was Jon's turn to sigh. "Oh, great, let me guess - interstate commerce." "You got it." "Surely there's some sort of provision for emergencies." "Oh, sure. That's how I got up here last night. But Moke's probably got writer's cramp by now filling out all the forms certifying it as an emergency, and I'm sure he'll have a ream ready for me when I get back too." The young hero rolled his eyes. "I'll probably have to sign in blood that I didn't bring any insects or fruit with me, and who knows what else!"

Jon laughed. "Sounds like fun." "Oh yeah. You'll see soon enough. I heard you're applying for second-level registration... depending on your powers, all sorts of federal agencies will want to shove their oars in. In your case, I'll bet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is gonna want their pound of flesh, along with who knows how many others." Jon sighed, covering his eyes. "The joys of bureaucracy. At least tell me the IAEA won't get involved." "Probably not, but I wouldn't count on it."

"Gee, thanks for brightening my day." FAQ grinned and said in an exaggerated 'heroic' tone, "My work here is done!" Jon laughed and punched him in the arm. "Not yet. You still have all those fun forms to fill out. Get to it, wrench-boy." "Aie! Truly, you are avenged, sir!" After a little more light-hearted banter, FAQ finally took his leave, whistling to himself.

By then it was getting close to noon. Jon wandered over to the door, and sure enough, Demeter rang the bell at 12 sharp. He unsealed the door to let her in; she looked quizzically at all the preparations when he sealed it back down. "What's that all about?" "We're having issues with Carlton. One of their higher-ups is after Alpha, and so they're trying to shut the base down early. They told me to keep it sealed, and I'm cooperating. For now."

"That... doesn't seem to make sense." "Oh, it does. You knew Shadow-Force was funded by Carlton Industries, right?" She nodded, and he continued, "Well, Mr. Carlton himself is a great guy. But there are other people in the company who... aren't so much. One of them wants to get his hands on Alpha, and he thinks he can do that by kicking us out."

"What's he want him for?" "I'm not totally sure, but I can tell you he doesn't see Alpha as a person, just a machine. I wouldn't be surprised if he wants to take him apart and figure out how he works." Demeter frowned. "And we're not going to let him." "Darn straight we're not!" "What's the plan?"

"Well, the first thing you need to know is that we're in for a major media feeding frenzy." "About me, Technoid, or something else?" "All of the above. Technoid's the biggest thing, but they were already doing cartwheels over you last night; Alpha told me about it before the fight went down." "Oh, great. And the something else?" "The explosion. Depending on circumstances, we may need to keep that very quiet, or we may need to shout it from the rooftops. Anyway, I'm going to arrange a press conference for Monday afternoon or evening. How much experience do you have with the press?"

"Just the papparazzi last night." Jon sighed. "Great. OK, imagine dozens of him all at once." She shuddered. "Lovely." "Yeah. Don't worry, I'll do most of the talking, but you'll probably need to make a statement. Be thinking about it." "Yeah, I think I can see how it works. Are we in a relationship? No comment." "Actually, it'd probably be better to say our relationship is purely professional. 'No comment' almost makes it sound like we have something to hide." "Got it. But you said it to the guy last night?" "Sure, I was trying to get rid of him. There wouldn't be much point in trying to get rid of reporters at a press conference."

Demeter nodded, taking it all in. Jon suddenly realized with a queasy sensation that to her, he was the veteran; she was listening to him the way he'd listened to the Phantom. I'm not the clueless newbie any more, he thought. Or at any rate, I'm the least clueless newbie. And that... is kind of scary.

He cleared his throat and said, "Anyway, just so you know ahead of time, it may be that I'll need to make Carlton Industries look bad in the conference. I really, really don't want to have to do that, but if they force my hand, I will." "Okay... how will you tip me off, so I know not to praise the wrong people and so on?" "I'll be meeting with them hopefully Monday morning. I'll know going in what our stance is going to be, and I'll tell you." "Okay, good."

Jon announced, "OK, next item on the agenda. We formulate a patrol plan." He gathered some maps and spread them out on a table. Then he pointed to the map with Tex's compass on it, and added, "Oh, and don't bump that map over there." Demeter agreed, clearly bemused by the request. She seemed to just be taking things as they came at this point.

Jon uncapped a marker and wrote the days of the week at the top of a whiteboard, then asked, "OK, so what days and times do you need to see Sidney?"

[This bit was rather confusing, as they'd clearly learned different shades of meaning for that particular Super slang term. To Photon, 'Sid' or 'Sidney' just means secret-ID stuff. You use 'Sal' or 'Sally' only when necessary to be clear or avoid embarrassing phrases. But to Demeter, apparently you use the same-sex term for your life in general, and the opposite-sex term for your love interest. I thought at the time that maybe SP and I weren't on the same page about it at the player level, but he says no, he thought it was a realistic sort of mix-up to happen.]

"Er, I don't have a Sidney right now. I have to meet Sally from 8 to noon each weekday." Photon paused in confusion, and they were at cross-purposes for a time until finally working what the other meant. [To him it sounded like she'd just said she didn't have a secret ID, and needed 8 to noon each weekday to see her lesbian lover. :) Or at any rate someone whom it was necessary to specifically call out as female.] That impasse gotten over, they were finally able to work out a three-person patrol schedule. The businesslike camaraderie of it seemed to set Demeter noticeably at ease.

About halfway through the planning session, Photon suddenly announced, "Hold on, I need to go shoot some lightning." Demeter took that in her stride and didn't even ask why.

Jon finally said, "OK, I think we're set. But there's something you need to know. At times, you're going to be patrolling with Beta." "Yeah?" "He's, well, not very bright. He's pretty good with combat, but all the same, you're the one who's going to have to supply the tactical coordination." "...Oh. Well, can we do a joint patrol on Saturday so I get a feel for working with him without being on my own?" "Sure, that's a good idea. Don't worry, it's not so bad. You just have to patient with him. He's... a bit slow." Demeter laughed. Jon asked, "What?" "Sorry. I just worked as a candystriper once, and it sounds a lot like working in the mental ward." "Not a bad analogy. We supers can be a crazy lot."

Jon immediately regretted saying it, thinking of Scott. They both winced. Demeter finally cleared her throat and mused, "...I suppose the basics aren't too hard. Get the big robot between you and the dangerous stuff." Jon nodded seriously. "Absolutely. He's a lot less squishy than you are. Also, he's totally immune to almost all mental stuff." "Oh! That sounds very handy!" "It is, believe me."

"What's the deal with him and Alpha, anyway?" Demeter asked. "They think of themselves as 'brothers'." "...That's pretty weird." "Not really. They were made by the same guy; I suspect that Beta may originally have been intended as Alpha's telepresence unit." "Oh, so if they get broken, he can fix them?" "No... He was murdered shortly after they were created. They don't talk about their 'father' much - I don't know why."

"Is that everything, Photon?" "Almost. You'll need to fill this out." He handed her a blank emergency protocol form and an envelope. "Seal it up, and I'll put it in a safe place. I promise I won't look at it unless you're... not able to speak for yourself." Demeter accepted it solemnly; clearly it was coming home to her that 'this is real'.

"And finally. Having slept on the whole prophecy thing, I have a question for you and then something to say." She looked a little uneasy, but said, "Okay... shoot." Jon paused, then said, "Thinking it over, I can see why you might want to punch Forestrike. But I'm not clear on why you would want to thank him."

Demeter sighed. "Well... It's moot now, I guess. But I was afraid that our powers meshed poorly enough that I wouldn't even get an audition." "...How does that translate into thanking him?" She shrugged. "Negative attention is still attention. I thought at the time that maybe you felt a greater need to check me out because of the prophecy." "Oh, I see." "So what did you want to tell me?"

Jon said, "So far as I can see, there's really only three possibilities for the prophecy." Demeter nodded warily, but said nothing, so Jon continued. "One. Despite all appearances, we're both wrong about you being 'Nephrite'. In which case, the prophecy doesn't apply to you at all, so: Welcome to the team."

"Two. You are in fact 'Nephrite', but we're misinterpreting what 'worthless' and 'faithless' mean." She interjected, "Well, while I've never been very religious, I don't think I'm what you could call 'faithless'." "Right, but of course there's the other meaning of, well, 'treacherous'." She nodded uncomfortably, and added, "I do feel my powers were pretty 'worthless' last night." "Let's come back to that later, okay? I have some ideas on that topic." "Okay..." "Anyway, to continue, in this second case, where we've misinterpreted things, or Forestrike was just being spitefully obscure, there's no reason to fear, so: Welcome to the team."

"Three. You are 'Nephrite', and the words 'worthless' and 'faithless' should be taken at face value." Demeter braced herself, looking very defensive, as Jon continued. "In that case, I say this. You've already averted part of the prophecy using your free will, by not taking the name 'Jade'. And I am choosing to trust you to avert the rest of it using your free will as well. So: Welcome to the team."

Demeter smiled beautifully at him, relieved. Jon told her seriously, "I can't go through life constantly looking over my shoulder. So I won't." He paused and they both let that sink in, then he said, "And believe me, your powers weren't 'worthless'. We just need to figure out how to get all the use out of them we can."

"But..." "Demeter. You knocked Technoid off-balance long enough for me to get another shot at him. That's not even remotely 'worthless'. There's no way we can know for sure, of course, but that extra shot might have spelled the difference between victory and defeat." She nodded slowly, thinking that over. Jon added, "And it's not uncommon for a particular power suite to be useless against a certain kind of foe, you know. It happens all the time. I mean, look at the Phantom."

Demeter looked puzzled. "What about him?" "Big, nationally-known, universally-respected hero, right?" "Yeah?" "He was totally helpless against robots." She blinked, and he continued, "Oh, he could lift the smaller ones with his telekinesis. But big, heavy ones? They couldn't hurt him, at least not without some pretty fancy technology, but he couldn't hurt them either. There was just nothing he could do to them." "So what did he do?" Jon shrugged. "Either he relied on his teammates, or else he found clever ways to leverage his powers. Or, most often, both. And that's what we're going to do with yours." "How?"

"I've been thinking about that. The trouble is, indoors where there's no plants, you have to rely on your pollen. If an enemy happens to be immune to your pollen, you're out of luck... unless we can bring plants into the picture. Supposing you carried a bag of, say, kudzu seeds. Could you make them grow fast enough to snare people?"

Demeter's eyes widened and she thought it over. "Hmmm. Yes... I would need a little time to get them started, but yes." "How long?" "You'd have to cover for me for a few seconds, but then I could snare probably several people at once." "See? That's doable. And definitely worthwhile. My only concern is, how well will they do as snares considering they can't get rooted?" "Oh believe me, they'll get rooted - you've seen how strong the trees are. It'll do damage to the floor, of course."

"Well, that's fine, then. There's lots of powers that do more property damage than that! ... I don't know if kudzu is the right plant to use, of course, I just said that off the top of my head." "I can think of any number of promising varietals. Thanks, Photon." "No problem! The more we can work out how to use our powers together, the more effective a team we'll be." They smiled at each other.

Just then the 'doorbell' rang. "Huh," Jon said, and went and checked the door monitor.

He saw a man with shoulder-length brown hair who, apart from wearing a blank full-face mask of dark, rigid material, appeared to have stepped out of a Ren Faire. He wore a blousy white shirt and leather leggings, with a rust-red cloak over all. A sturdy leather baldric bearing a bright silver buckle crossed his chest, supporting a sword with a basket hilt.

Thoroughly puzzled, Jon told Demeter, "Be ready, just in case." He unsealed the door and opened it.

"Greetings," the man said with a sweeping bow. "I wish to join you."

The Shadow

8 - Walking on Eggshells

[The last major bit of fallout from _Dragon's Egg_. This is also the longest update yet; it's one long session plus half of a short one. It just flowed better that way.]

Photon stared at the man and said, "Oooookay. And you are?" "Forgive me, I am Sirocco." "All right. I'm Photon and this is Demeter. Do come in." Sirocco nodded graciously to Demeter and soon the three of them were seated. Demeter was still looking shell-shocked by the events of the past day.

Seeing the man face to face, it was clear that Sirocco's mask was made of dark stone, which seemed to shift strangely from time to time. He was a bit short, about five foot seven. Jon asked, "So, Sirocco. Tell us about yourself."

Sirocco put his hand to his chest and declaimed, "I was born to a small family..." Photon rolled his eyes, and Sirocco laughed. "Sorry. I am an earth elemental." [Super term: An "elemental" is a super with powers revolving around a particular substance or force.] "Okay, what can you do with it?"

"I find it easiest to work with sand. I can spray it in several different forms." "Can you produce your own sand, or do you have to have an existing source?" "I can conjure small amounts of it with ease; larger amounts are more taxing." "Please demonstrate." "With pleasure."

Sirocco held out his hand, and sand swirled into being above it, shaping itself into a shifting, trembling sphere. "You'd never guess how much practice it took to get the sphere right. Is there anything I can shoot it at?" "Can you destroy the sand once you're done?" "No, but I can easily sweep it outside." "All right, the wall I guess."

Sirocco flicked a finger, and the sand sprayed itself with great force against the wall. Little or no visible damage was done to the metal wall, but it was clearly not something you'd want to be standing in front of. The sand then hopped off the ground as if drawn to a magnet, and flowed into Sirocco's hand again. This time it concreted itself into little pebbles of sandstone, which hurled themselves against the wall again. This time the wall was a bit dented. "Sorry about that."

"No trouble," Photon assured him, "This base has seen a lot worse. How long have you known of your power?" "Since I was fourteen." "And how old are you now?" Sirocco hesitated for a moment, then replied, "Twenty-one." "All right. What's with the sword?"

Proudly, "I'm a fencer, and quite good. I've hooked up a battery to charge the sword up, too." "Your name wouldn't be Inigo Montoya by any chance?" Sirocco laughed and snapped his fingers. "I chose the wrong codename! That'd be perfect!" "It's not too late to change it." "Alas, copyright. Villains are one thing, but lawyers?" Photon shuddered and said, "Inconceivable!" "You keep using that word! I do not think it means what you think it means!" The two men laughed; Demeter let her head sink into her hand and muttered something about being surrounded by geeks.

Photon resumed the interview. "Okay, so that handles melee, what about guns and so on?" "For that, I do this." He stood up and took a step back. Abruptly he was surrounded by a howling miniature sandstorm about ten feet across. When he let it lapse, he gestured the sand into a neat conical pile; he looked to be a bit out of breath. "Hmm, nice. How long can you keep that up?" "A minute or two." "Long enough. Can you make it bigger?" "Only with a great deal of effort."

Photon mused on that for a time then asked, "Do you have any experience as a hero?" "Yes, I've been doing it for a year or so in Michigan." "Hmmm. Worked with any other heroes?"

"Yes. My first few months I worked with Charm." Jon recognized the name; a hero known for superhuman luck. "Didn't he retire recently?" "Yes, about eight months ago. I... well, I hesitate to use the term 'sidekick', but he showed me the ropes." "I see. Got your own rogue's gallery over there?" Sirocco shook his head. "Not really. I've fought supers three times, but mostly it's been norms. The Great Lakes Guardians cover most super threats." [A well-known, prominent team.] "Have you worked with them?" "Some. Mostly cleanup while they went after the main villains." [He means 'cleanup' of minions. By the way, SP tells me that yes, there are difficulties between the GLG and the Galactic Guardians over the similarity of their names. But the Great Lakes team actually *predates* the national one.]

"Any enemies we should know about?" The man shrugged. "I doubt it. There was one guy I suspect had big ties to organized crime, but he didn't swear undying vengeance or anything." "All right. Anyone else in Michigan I can contact?" "Sure," Sirocco responded, and named a police lieutenant in Detroit.

"What's your registration level?" "First. I was working on getting the equivalent of second in Michigan's state program when I came here." "So what does bring you to Seattle?" "Sidney thought it would be a good idea." "Ah. Are you here to stay?" Sirocco hesitated again, then said, "I'm here for at least a year. Each year after that, there's a chance my job could transfer me again. As I gain seniority, that'll become less likely." Photon nodded, understanding his hesitation; that information narrowed down his profession a fair bit. Sales, perhaps?

"So how long have you been in Seattle?" "About four months." "Done any hero-ing here?" "Not yet, I've been settling into the new job situation. Pondered for a while whether I was needed over here." "Well, I assure you, you are."

Jon started to ask another question, but Demeter piped up. "Hold on. What would it mean to you if I said I don't have a Sidney but I do have a Sally?" Sirocco blinked much the way Photon had the previous night. "You, uh. What? No Sid... What does that even mean?" Photon suppressed a smirk when Demeter folded her arms and sulked. To Sirocco he explained, "She learned a different meaning; we had this same confusion last night." "Ah."

Jon mulled everything over. "Well, Sirocco, I'll want to do a patrol with you to see how things shake out, but for now I think you'll make a good addition to the team." "Sounds good! Thank you." "Oh, do you have any means of transportation?" "Right! I forgot to mention I can fly."

Demeter abruptly cut in again, "Hold on. It takes major effort for you to produce large amounts of sand, but you can use it to fly?! How's that supposed to work?" Jon blinked. He hadn't thought of that. Sirocco responded, "The flight... isn't based on sand." Photon asked a bit sharply, "Any other powers you want to share with us, Sirocco?" "No, I think that's it." "How does the flight work, if not from your sand powers?" "I'd... rather keep that a secret for now, if you don't mind."

Jon was about to mind very distinctly when he recalled he hadn't exactly shared all the details of his own powers either. "All right... for now." "Is there anything else?" "Just our patrol tonight. When is good for you?" "Seven?" "All right. Also, you should know you're walking into a huge media mess. I'm going to try to arrange a press conference for tomorrow afternoon or evening. When could you be there?" Between the three of them, they found that the time between noon and 3:30 was suitable. "I'll try to set it for 1 PM."

Jon stared moodily at the door after Sirocco left and sighed. Demeter asked, "What's wrong?" "It's weird. People used to tell me I was too naive and trusting. But now that I'm leading a team, I find myself getting all paranoid. Really sensitive to anything that could possibly go wrong. This must be what the Phantom felt like."

She pondered that. "Well... If you do anything like as good a job as he did, we'll be in fine shape." "I guess. Thanks. Don't you want to know what I'm feeling paranoid about?" "No, I thought I'd leave that up to you."

Jon sent her a grateful look. "Well... What other super do we know of in town who's a fencer that uses an electrified sword?" She blinked and thought it over. "...Captain Kidd?" "Exactly. Yeah, I know, he's never shown any sign of sand powers." "Doesn't fly, either." "Uh huh. And yet it nags at me. It's exactly the sort of stunt a wanna-be villain like him would pull."

"So what do you want to do about it?" Jon shrugged. "At the moment, nothing. It's only a vague suspicion that probably isn't true. But I don't like having even vague suspicions of people I'm going to be fighting alongside." Demeter teased, "If we see them together, can we assume Sirocco's OK?" Jon replied deadpan, "That would depend on what we see them doing together." She laughed. "Well, if he fights Captain Kidd with us, surely that at least adjusts the probabilities?" "Somewhat. You never can tell. Some villains do all sorts of interesting things with robots."

That reminded Jon of something. "Speaking of which, would you like to do a patrol today with me and Beta?" "Oh... sure. I didn't think you'd want to, since you're going out with Sirocco." "I don't mind. Beta, how's your charge?"

Beta announced from the next room, "78%. I am fully functional." "Come and meet our new teammate, then. We're going on patrol." "Acknowledged." There came the sounds of Beta disengaging himself from his charging station, then he clomped into the room with his characteristic faint mechanical whine.

Demeter's eyes widened - Beta looked a lot bigger in person than in pictures. Though 'only' seven feet tall, the robot was massively built and came across as distinctly looming. His head with its radio transceiver was shaped vaguely like a helmet; his unknown designer had capitalized on that accidental resemblance and crafted his body to resemble stylized plate armor. If you imagined the laser cannon mounted on one arm as a couched lance, you could easily picture him as a knight.

Jon made introductions. "Demeter, X-97 Beta. Beta, Demeter." Demeter ventured, "Um, hello." Beta boomed, "Greetings," and offered nothing else. Jon had noticed before that Beta seemed less personable when not in contact with Alpha... He smoothed things over by saying, "Let's go, shall we?" "What route are we taking?" Beta wanted to know. "Sector A-4, Beta." (Beta needs very precise instructions for where to go on patrol.) "Acknowledged."

They departed, Beta and Photon flying, Demeter carried by a tree. Jon patiently explained to Beta that he was going to demonstrate some tactical options to Demeter, and put the robot through his paces, showing Demeter what sort of terminology Beta was used to. Then he let her take over.

Almost unfortunately, no trouble reared its head, though Beta did announce at one point that a call was being received back at the base, from KOMO News. "Do you wish me to patch it through?" "Not on patrol, no. They can leave a message." "Acknowledged."

When they got back, Jon asked Demeter, "So, you feel you have a handle on things?" "Yes, actually. Thanks." "Not a problem. Get a good night's sleep and be ready for tomorrow." "Will do!"

After she left, Jon listened to the message. Unsurprisingly, they wanted an interview with him and Demeter. Jon sighed. Mike and Alpha had always handled the media; he wasn't 100% sure how to even set up a news conference. Oh well... He called back and told them to be at the base at 1 PM for a major announcement; they jumped on it. He also called both major newspapers, a couple more TV news stations, and a magazine or two. "I guess that'll do it... Too bad Mike used Alpha as his rolodex."

He then left a message urgently requesting an appointment with Mr. Carlton at his earliest convenience, and then continued to read up on Alpha's diagnostic routines until Sirocco showed up. "Ready to go?" "I am!"

Sirocco quickly proved to know how things worked. He asked intelligent questions about potential tactics in case of trouble, which reassured Jon. But he also asked another, less reassuring question: "How much flash do you want to use?" "I beg your pardon?" "When we stop a crime, how much showing off do you want to do?"

Jon frowned. "Just get the job done. Don't waste mental effort on how it looks, pay attention to your surroundings." "Check."

After mulling over the implications of that question, Jon finally asked, "So what were your super-battles like?" They turned out to have been pretty small beer. "Like I said, the Great Lakes Guardians handled the big stuff." "Well, here in Seattle, the buck stops with us. Oh, there are a few independent heroes. But we basically ARE the equivalent of the Great Lakes Guardians."

Sirocco blinked, then grinned. "Cool!" "In some ways. Not so cool in others." "Well, we should be able to handle anything but the really big stuff, right?" "Yeah, but we've had two incidents of 'really big stuff' in the last year alone. The Doctor and Diabolus - surely you heard of those." "A little."

Sirocco pondered, then asked, "There aren't any other teams around? Wasn't there one in Tacoma?" "Wow, you really aren't up on the history around here, are you?" "What do you mean?" "The Freedom Squad got killed off last year by the Doctor. Only one of them survived, and she had to retire." "...Oh." Sirocco was plainly taken aback, and Jon grimly hoped it would be salutary.

I hadn't realized just how different my career has been from that of most new heroes, Jon thought to himself. Sirocco's been doing this as long as I have, maybe a bit longer, but I've had an entirely different caliber of experience. And Demeter - two months into my career I was doing an inside job in a villain organization!

I came into a functioning team of experienced heroes. I've fought world-class foes; I've had media exposure. Good grief, I've worked with the Galactic Guardians! I hadn't ever thought it through, but none of that is at all common.

With a revelatory shock, he realized: No wonder they look to me to lead! They've never been on a team at all! Then, yet a further shock: And no wonder the media don't take me seriously! They normally don't have cause to cover rookie heroes much at all; when they cover me, I stick out like a sore thumb.

The rest of the patrol was quiet, with one exception: Jon prevented an incipient mugging by shining a spotlight on the thugs as they were moving into position while Sirocco hovered opposite him in case things got ugly.

As it happened, they didn't. Sirocco started to swoop down to apprehend the bad guys as they ran off, but Photon stopped him. Sirocco reacted in surprise. "But they're getting away!" "From what? What charges could we bring? They hadn't done anything yet." "They were going to mug that guy!" "I know that and you know that, but what could we prove in court? Especially since neither of us can testify?"

Sirocco backed down, grumbling. Jon nodded to himself. Sirocco's hotheadedness and overconfidence would bear watching.

Reminding the young man of the press conference and seeing him off, Jon zipped home and once again gratefully fell into bed.


He awoke with butterflies in his stomach. This is gonna be a big day on several fronts, he thought grimly to himself. He called in sick to work, then went to the Shadow-Force base to wait tensely on a phone call.

Sure enough, Mr. Carlton's secretary called him at 8:05 AM. "I'm sorry to inform you, Mr. Photon, that Mr. Carlton is on a business trip in Tokyo. He will be back on Thursday, I can get you in then?" Aha, Jon thought, that explains why Hamilton was so smug - he's hoping to present Carlton with a fait accompli when he gets back. "I'm afraid the matter is urgent. Can I contact him by phone today perhaps?"

"He'll be sleeping at the moment, but I might be able to arrange a call this evening?" "Too late. Where is he staying?" Japan's not far at light-speed... "I'm afraid I am not authorized to share that information with you, Mr. Photon - I'd have to get Mr. Carlton's permission. However, there is a vice-presidents' meeting today at 9:30; I could get you into that if it would help?" "It will have to do, I suppose." "What should I list as your agenda item?" Jon thought for a moment. "Concerns regarding Shadow-Force base and personnel." (He had, of course, chosen the word 'personnel' with malice aforethought.)

Jon's hands shook as he waited. I can't afford to be shy and quiet in this meeting; I can't. Alpha's life may depend on it. He paced around the room to blow off steam, pondering strategy, then sat down and tried to will his heart rate to slow. Good grief, I can fight supervillains without this much trouble! How much worse can a room full of hostile bigshots be? But he knew the answer: I can't fight the bigshots with lasers, only with politics. And politics is their battlefield, not mine.

At 9:20, he told Beta, "Don't let anyone in the base except Demeter until I return." "Acknowledged". Then he took a deep breath and flew into the Carlton offices, and was ushered into an imposing conference room. [SP gave me a hero point for 'walking right into the lair of the enemy'.] There was a tape recorder on the table, but Jon's field sense told him there was a more sophisticated one wired into the room as well. Nobody looked surprised to see him, but they did their best to subtly portray his presence as an imposition all the same. Photon nodded grimly to himself. So it's going to be like that.

Introductions were made; too many names to really keep track of. (Hamilton of Research grinned at him like a shark.) The VP of Operations was chairing the meeting; after calling things to order, he explained a bit patronizingly to Photon that they recorded all their meetings and ostentatiously pressed the Record button on the little machine in front of him on the table. Jon curled his lip; pure showmanship, given that he could sense the hidden system also working.

They took care of some other items of business before getting to him - more putting me in my place, no doubt. Jon took the opportunity to read the room; his anxiety had receded now that he was in the thick of things, giving him only a light edge of urgency. The guy from Financial was on Hamilton's side - no doubt he saw the expenditure on Shadow-Force as giving no tangible return. Mark from Legal had a beef with the two of them, and with Hamilton in particular; that should be very handy. Linda from Public Relations was going out of her way to show sympathy to Photon; no surprise there. The chairman resented Photon's presence and was impartially annoyed with everyone responsible for it. The other four people in the room just wanted to get this over with.

Finally the chairman said, "Now, I believe you had some business to discuss, Mr. Photon?" Jon cleared his throat. "Yes. There are two issues. First, I am told that the decommissioning of the base has been put on an accelerated schedule due to the super-battle Saturday night, and that some Carlton property needs to be removed earlier than previously projected. Naturally, I have no objection to Carlton recovering its own property. But I am wondering if the list of property includes a certain supercomputer."

Hamilton grinned at him toothily again and informed him in a long, precise, bureaucratic speech that the list was being prepared and that he'd be glad to take up any concerns Photon might have with it once it was ready. (No doubt after this meeting was over, but before Mr. Carlton returned.) Jon nodded graciously. "Thank you, that is all I needed to know."

The chair asked, "And your second item of business?" Photon replied, "As a result of the accelerated decommissioning schedule, the power in the base has been turned off. One of our teammates was injured in the battle, and we need the power turned back on to help him."

The VP's looked at each other; they hadn't been expecting that. The chairman said, "I had thought that Technoid had been... removed from the premises?" "Yes, of course. I'm not referring to him." Legal said, "Then you must mean X-97 Beta?" Hamilton frowned and held up a hand. "Hold on, my reports say the robot wasn't involved in the battle."

Jon said smoothly, "Not directly, no, though he was hacked by Technoid. We do need the power on for him too, to keep him charged, but he's also not the teammate I meant."

Confusion at first. The chair was about to ask him just who he did mean when Jon saw comprehension suddenly dawn on the Legal VP's face, while Hamilton turned red as a beet. He shot to his feet and shouted, "Total idiocy! Do you honestly expect us to believe that a supercomputer..." Jon cut him off ruthlessly. "This is a matter of Shadow-Force team security. I request that the recording be turned off."

Pandemonium. Hamilton called him every name in the book, and Financial looked ready to sharpen a knife himself. Mark from Legal studied the two of them with a faintly calculating expression; meanwhile the chair gaveled Hamilton down. "Roger, you're making a fool of yourself. Sit down." Hamilton did so, trembling with rage. Jon noted, surprised, that this was deeply personal for the man, not just politics; his rant had made clear that he was enraged at the mere suggestion that Alpha could be a sapient being. The chair cleared his throat and said, "I think we'll take a fifteen minute recess to discuss this development, unless there are any objections?" There were none.

Linda from PR approached Jon and said, "If you'd like to come to the cafeteria, Mr. Photon, we'd be glad to get you a cup of coffee. We also have a very nice selection of teas if you prefer." "I'd love to." He selected an herbal tea; while he was being cooler under pressure than he had feared, he didn't want to risk any caffeine at this juncture. Once he was ensconced at a table with it, he was completely unsurprised when Linda said quietly to him, "I'm on your side in this, Photon." "Thank you." "A legal battle on this issue would be disastrous for the company." "Not to mention the verdict of the court of popular opinion." She winced. "Yes, I'm well aware of which way popular opinion would swing."

Jon pondered for a moment, then asked, "Can you tell me what's driving this? Is it intellectual, financial, or political?" She shrugged helplessly. "Any or all of the above, depending on who you're talking about." "All right, thank you." "I'll back your play however I can."

Back in the conference room, the chair brought the meeting to order again and announced, "A decision has been reached to end the recording at the request of Photon of Shadow-Force." He turned the little recorder off, and also did something surreptitiously under the table; Jon sensed the other system powering down as well. "Now, Mr. Photon, I think we need to be explicitly clear. Which team member are you referring to?"

"X-97 Alpha." "The base's supercomputer." "That is correct." Hamilton restrained his fury and cut in scornfully, "So you claim that this... computer is an actual member of Shadow-Force?"

Jon said with quiet dignity, "No. I do not claim that." He paused just long enough for everyone to stare at him in confusion, then stated, "I positively assert it. He WAS a team member long before I was, without any question, and he remains one to this day. His vote in team meetings has always been treated as equal to anyone else's."

Hamilton pointed out triumphantly, "But if this is true, why the secrecy? Why hasn't its contribution been publicly recognized?" "We kept him secret because we could. He's a valuable asset, but he isn't out in the field." "And we're supposed to just take your word on this, I suppose?"

"No. Bazooka and Brimstone will tell you the same. What's more, Alpha has worked with other heroes as an equal. Most recently the Texas Hex - ask him." Jon could feel the tide in the room starting to shift; Hamilton felt it too, and blustered, "We don't exactly have a phone number for them..." "I can contact Bazooka and Brimstone. As for the Texas Hex, he's a member in good standing of the Texas Legends, who do in fact have a public telephone number."

Hamilton started to say something cutting, but the chair held up a hand. "We'll stipulate that the Texas Hex can be contacted. But regardless, Mr. Photon, how can a computer be a person? There's no legal precedent, is there?"

Everyone looked at Mark from Legal, who said, "There is no body of legal opinion on the subject of artificial intelligence at all; it's a lively issue among constitutional legal scholars. It is my considered opinion that any case hinging on the personhood of an alleged artificial intelligence would end up before the Supreme Court." Hamilton rolled his eyes. "This is ridiculous! Do you mean to say that I'm going to have to emancipate my laptop?!"

Jon cut in, "How many laptops get paid a salary?" When everyone stared at him again, he pointed out, "X-97 Alpha is an employee of Carlton Industries." Pandemonium all over again; it took everyone by storm. The chair gaveled the meeting to order again. "Okay, Mark, what the hell?! Human Resources is your bailiwick."

The Legal VP was fully engaged now. He studied Photon carefully, measuring him up. "The contract was signed 'X-97' by the robot known as 'X-97 Beta'. Are you saying he wasn't signing on his own behalf?" "'X-97' is a collective term for the two of them. You could think of it as a surname." Hamilton cried out triumphantly, "Aha! Fraud!" Jon shot back, "Did you get a Social Security number? Are you saying that Carlton Industries hires undocumented workers?" Several people around the room winced; Jon could tell that he was winning the argument, though gaining no friends in the process. Screw it, he thought, this isn't a social call.

Hamilton shouted, "I still say the whole thing's a fraud!" Mark said crisply, "It's not that simple. It's possible to grant temporary power of attorney to sign documents if one is unable to sign oneself - due to a hand injury, for example." "You have got to be kidding me! You buy this..." The chair said wearily, "Roger, sit down. Look. Are you putting this robot Beta on the list too?"

Hamilton said cagily, "Well... We've been looking into the matter." "On what legal basis?" Jon wanted to know. "Even apart from issues of personhood, neither Alpha nor Beta were created by Carlton Industries, nor have they been bought by the company."

Mark explained, "The contract with Shadow-Force stipulates that any improvements to the base remain the property of Carlton." "Ah. It's just that nobody involved with Shadow-Force, including Mr. Carlton, has ever seen Alpha as just an 'improvement'." "So it would seem." Mark pondered a while, then continued, "Given that X-97 Beta is an openly recognized member of the Super community, I cannot recommend taking any action in his regard. In fact, I urge in the strongest terms against it unless Mr. Carlton is fully apprised of the ramifications."

The chair said, "OK, in that case I move we table discussion of the robot until Mr. Carlton returns. All in favor?" The motion carried unanimously except for Hamilton's vote. "Now, the computer. Anyone else have anything to add?"

Linda from PR said, "Yes, I do." She had a couple charts ready. "As you can see, corporations that sponor superhero teams experience a consistent rise of 10 to 15% in revenues. But in those few cases where corporations have been seen by the public as reneging on their agreements with super teams, their sales have fallen by 20 to 30%. Boycott campaigns have been organized, and the media don't let it go. It's this simple: It doesn't matter whether the courts eventually say we were right or wrong. If this goes public, we will take a major hit. We'd do our best to spin it, of course, but I'm telling you right now that it's a hopeless cause."

The Financial VP sat back in his chair, eyes wide. Evidently he was seeing the whole thing in a new light. Jon stopped himself from smiling; things were nearly sewn up. One of the VP's who hadn't yet spoken up (Jon couldn't recall his department) asked, "So what ARE our chances in the courts, Mark? Lay it on the line for us."

The lawyer pondered for a time. "The issue of personhood is wide open - there is just no telling what direction the Supreme Court would go. Setting that aside, I have become convinced that our position is... uncertain." After some more thought, he said, "I categorically oppose taking any action until Mr. Carlton returns and is fully informed of the possible fallout. And while I will study the matter further, my recommendation to him at this point is going to be not to pursue action with regard to X-97 Alpha."

Hamilton locked eyes with Photon. He had sufficient self-possession not to lose his cool now that it was clear he had lost, but the hatred in his face was plain to see. The motion to table the matter carried, but it was just a formality by that point. Jon ignored the vibes coming off Hamilton and said, "I propose that the power be turned back on and the decommissioning be restored to its previous schedule."

There followed some discussion, cavilling, and nuancing. Hamilton did his best to gum up the works out of pure spite by pointing out the radiation issues once again; Jon offered sweetly to clean it up with his own powers. But when the guy from Maintenance expressed a desire to make sure of a variety of other potential hazards in the base, Photon graciously backed down. They need to save face, he thought, and I can afford to be magnanimous in victory.

In the end, the decontamination was retained at the accelerated rate, but the rest of the decommissioning process was restored to its original pace. The Finance VP feebly tried to protest the expense of keeping the power on until Maintenance pointed out that the alternative was to haul in thousands of pounds of generators to do the decontamination, then haul them back out again. In the end, it was agreed to turn it back on, with the request that Photon keep all nonessential equipment and unused areas of the base turned off. Jon agreed to that readily as well.

With that, the meeting adjourned. Linda warmly wished Photon the best of luck with his press conference that afternoon - doing so in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. (Evidently she'd heard about it through the grapevine.) Jon replied, "Thank you. I'll be sure to mention how helpful Dr. Norton and the other scientists from the Research division were." He'd intended it as a sop to Hamilton's ego, but his heart sank when the man glared at him with redoubled fury. Apparently Norton was a significant rival.

Leaving the lion's den, Jon paused to catch his breath. He could feel adrenaline catch up to him almost as if he'd just been in a battle. I was, he thought; a battle for my friend's life and freedom. [This 'battle' did require two hero points to pull off - one to reroll Sense Motive, and another to reroll Diplomacy.] He enjoyed a nice peaceful flight above the rainclouds toward Struthers' office at Seattle PD headquarters.

Taking a seat, he said, "Captain. You wanted to see me today?" "Yes, we've still got some loose ends regarding the whole Technoid situation." After discussing the details of the fight and filling out a few more inevitable forms, Struthers leaned back and said mock-cheerfully, "So! When were you planning to let me know about this little press conference of yours?"

Photon blinked. "Er. Now? I'm sorry, Captain, I didn't know I was supposed to inform you earlier. I'm still very new to the whole media thing." "So I hear. In the future, a courtesy call would be... greatly appreciated." "I'll definitely do that. Who should I tell? You weren't on duty yesterday." "Whoever's covering for me can handle it."

"All right. You should also know that I've got two new teammates: Demeter and Sirocco." "Sirocco, that rings a faint bell." "He's from Michigan. Actually, he gave me a reference of a police lieutenant over there." "Easy enough to track down - lay it on me." Jon did so, and after a little searching in a police database, Struthers said, "Damn. Killed in the line of duty two months ago." "He's been in Seattle four months. I guess he wouldn't have heard?" "Probably not. All the same, dig a little more." "I will."

After answering some more questions about Seattle's two newest heroes, Jon paused then asked, "Out of curiosity, when do you get off duty today?" Struthers replied drily, "I'm happily married, thanks." Jon's jaw dropped. "WHAT?!" The older man grinned a little mischievously. "Serves you right for not telling me about the conference. What's up?"

Jon collected his wits. "Well... you mentioned the possibility of a 'six-beer conversation'. I have a feeling before this day's over, I'm going to need one." "I hear that, but I'll have to take a rain check. Tonight's taken." "Ah well."

Returning to the base, Jon found two messages waiting for him: One from the mayor of Tacoma's office (huh?) and one from Mr. Carlton.

Jon braced himself, and called Mr. Carlton back. Sure enough, he sounded grumpy and tired. "All right, Photon. Just what did you DO?!" "What have you heard?" "No less than five conflicting reports, none of which makes a lick of sense. I gather that my company is still standing?" "It was the last time I checked." "That's something. What happened?"

"Technoid turned on us and we had a big fight in the base. Your man Hamilton in Research used this as a pretext to close the base down early and try to seize Alpha as 'Carlton property'." Carlton growled, "I never ordered or authorized any such damfool thing." "I knew that, sir, of course. I went in to the VP meeting this morning and... dissuaded them from any such action." "What sort of dissuasion did you use?" "I informed them that Alpha was a member of the team, and also on the Carlton payroll."

"There had to be more to it than that. What didn't you say?" "I very loudly didn't say that the courts would find their actions intriguing, and that the general public would be intrigued to the point of breaking out the torches and pitchforks." "While simultaneously putting away their pocketbooks, no doubt! Well... I'm not happy, but I see why you did it. I will take steps to make sure this never happens again." The word 'never' was said with the finality of doom; Jon could not doubt him, and almost felt sorry for Hamilton. Almost.

"Thank you, Mr. Carlton." "I have cut my trip short. I'll be back tomorrow, and human again the next day. Please make an appointment for Wednesday and we will address any further loose ends." "I will do that."

Returning the Tacoma call, an eager mayoral staffer asked - nay, pleaded with - him to appear at an event on Friday afternoon. "What sort of event?" "Please keep it quiet, but...The announcement of the third American Eagle!" Jon beamed sunnily, only barely noticing that he was shining rays of light around the room. "That's fantastic! I'll gladly come."

"Great! We're hoping to get as many people who worked with the Freedom Squad as possible - can X-97 make it?" "I don't see why not. And I can ask Bazooka and Brimstone as well, though I don't know if they'll be able to come." "Would you? That would be excellent! We're hoping to get Victrix in as well." Jon sighed to himself; his last memory of Victrix was as a broken shell of her formerly vibrant self. "How... is she doing?" "Ah... better, from what I'm told. We think she'll come." "I'm glad to hear that."

The staffer hesitated, then asked, "I guess we should ask you, you don't have a problem with the new American Eagle being a woman, do you?" Jon blinked. "No, not at all, why would I? If she can do the job, I couldn't care less what her gender is." "Good to know!" "How much experience does she have?" "She's the old hero's niece. I understand he trained her some before he, uh, passed away." You mean before he was murdered, Jon didn't say. "I'm glad she's not coming into it completely cold."

After hanging up, Jon just glowed for a time, both literally and figuratively. The nucleus of a new Freedom Squad to match the renewed Shadow-Force? Now THAT is some good news!

He still felt buoyed up when Demeter and Sirocco arrived, and the news teams began setting up for the conference. He filled his teammates in quickly on the situation and game plan.

At 1 PM sharp, Photon stepped up to an array of microphones set up in front of the base, his heart inevitably pounding like a hammer. After the preliminary stuff, he cut to the chase: "Shortly after the dissolution of Shadow-Force, my teammate Technoid placed himself in an experimental apparatus of his own design. He remained in a hibernation-like state for weeks while unknown changes took place; we did not know enough to interfere with the process. Two nights ago, on Saturday, the apparatus exploded. With me at the time studying the device were FAQ of the Portland Protectors and a team of scientists from Carlton Industries led by Dr. Andrew Norton. As well as a new applicant to the team, Demeter."

Photon paused; the audience was rapt in attention - it gave him a heady sensation of power that he resolutely held at arm's length. He continued, "Technoid emerged, seemingly deranged and definitely physically altered. When he attacked us, we defended ourselves. It became clear that he was a continuing danger to himself and everyone around him. With heavy hearts, then, we defeated him and turned him over to the Stronghold Superhuman Incarceration Facility."

A Babel of questions ensued, as he had expected. He clarified Technoid's full goals as little as he possibly could, and doled out information about the changes to Scott's physical form by the teaspoonful. In all, he tried his best to give the impression (without actually saying so) that the explosion had been an accident, and not Scott's intent... Let them remember him as a hero who was tragically injured, he thought. Not as a madman who put his city at risk for his own ends.

An unusually acute question about the size of the explosion caught Jon off guard. (He hadn't let slip any details of what the 'apparatus' was really like.) Not willing to lie outright and unable to think of a weaselly way to non-answer in time, Jon admitted, "It was large enough to do significant damage to the city. Thankfully, with FAQ's advice, I was able to contain the explosion with my powers."

Eventually, Jon found space to drop the other shoe. "I am pleased to announce that I have added two new teammates to our roster: Demeter and Sirocco." Introducing them to the community, he let them take their turns in the hotseat. Demeter proved to be something of a natural, handling the reporters with more ease after the first shock than Jon had feared. (It certainly didn't hurt that she was very telegenic!) Sirocco also acquitted himself decently; he had clearly had a little experience with the press.

Eventually things wound down. The three heroes commisserated with each other in the Situation Room, then plotted out a quick interim patrol plan for the rest of the week, and a team meeting to thrash things out in more lasting fashion on Saturday.

Jon ran a few errands he'd been letting slip in the craziness of the last few days. He called Hei and left her a message apologizing for not being in touch. Then, after pondering an obstacle in his research to get his mind off of super-stuff, he finally went to bed.


Jon's alarm woke him earlier than usual: He had a vital matter to attend to.

Flying into the base, he checked the diagnostic results for Alpha. Cross-referencing with the manual, he discovered that Alpha's memory files for the last week had been seriously corrupted. His options were to restore to a month-old backup or to scan back a further week to see how extensive the corruption was. He gave commands to implement the latter, and was informed the scan would take another six hours. Jon sighed. More waiting.

Going in to work, Jon did his best to play catch up. There was a message on his office phone from Karen, urgently requesting a lunch date for yesterday; she sounded really stressed. Stopping by her office, he found her still stressed but also harried. "I'm swamped today, Jon; how about tomorrow?" "You're on."

Dev also stopped by to see how he was doing. With his usual infectious enthusiasm, he shared, "The 28-dimensional polytopes are classified to my preliminary satisfaction, so I have moved on to a new project! Set theory, this time." "A little out of your line - mathematical theology again?" "No, no - how do you say? The Hound of Heaven has slipped my snare. Something much more suited to a little mind like mine: I think I have a new line on Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis."

Jon laughed. "Oh, is that all? It's only one of the greatest outstanding set-theoretical questions of the last century." "Piffle! Why do I listen to you and all of your negativity? I ask you." "Because I'm brilliant, handsome, and fun to be around? Oh, and because physicists are smarter than mathematicians?" Dev returned archly, "How brilliant can you be when you say such stupid things, yes? I ask this of you, Mr. Smarty-Shorts Physicist." "Pants, Dev." "Oh?" "Yes, it's 'smarty-pants'." "So you are handsome, fun to be around, and interested in my pants? This is too much information, Dr. Winters!"

Jon spluttered and laughed. "Two more points for you, Dr. Singh Dolma." "Yes, yes. I add them to my collection with joy." "I really am interested in your Continuum idea." Serenely, "Of course you are. You do not believe in continua, so you can afford to be interested. I do believe in them, and so I am in love."

That final crack stuck with Jon. The whole point of Loop Quantum Gravity was that spacetime was not, at the smallest level, a continuum. (Though he occasionally still used the term out of habit.) It was a fabric of ever-shifting loops. Not for the first time, he wondered if the shifting was purposeful instead of random; if the sensation he got from his powers of interacting with something alive was real. But how could you even touch such a thing mathematically...? It definitely kept him occupied him until lunch. [Theoretical research: Getting paid for daydreaming and writing it down! :)]

[The fact that SP has a degree in math and I have degrees in chemistry and physics makes conversations like this much easier. ;) I've *met* people like Dev, scarily and fascinatingly enough. He, Karen, Gerhard, and Hu are all based (extremely) loosely on people I knew in grad school. Though the (distant) prototypes of Dev and Karen were actually MARRIED to each other! The mind boggles.]

Eating quickly and zipping back to the base, he found that the scan had been successful and that the week-old memory file checked out. At last! He sent the commands to restore back to the older file, and then:

> wake -s -R


> enable -terminal plaintext

Hello world?

> "Hello, my friend.  Welcome back."
[P.S. I would like to solicit suggestions for a new team name. 'Shadow-Force' just doesn't fit this group any more, and both Jon and I feel there needs to be a clean break with the past. However, I am just plain tapped for a name; I haven't been able to think of anything.]