What Doesn't Kill Me OnlyMakes Me Stronger
by Richard Stump

In the car, John stretched and yawned, then reachedfor his fourth espresso of the night.  While he was sure he had enough pictures for Mr. Templeton, he knew that pictures of Mrs. Templeton leaving her lover's apartment in the early morning would cinch the divorce. He hated working divorce cases, but rich clients always payed very wellfor a good divorce settlement. He was a bit surprised when his cell phonebegan vibrating at 3 am, but a glance at the display
showed it was his partner, Dana.

"Morning, Dana."

"Hope you're having fun, John."

"Sure, tons.  What's up?"

"Emil Veris of JayTech just called the serviceand ask that we meet with him at his offices at 6 am.  Normally I'dgo, but I have the Aaron's surveillance in the morning.  Think you'llbe done in time?"

John glanced at his watch before replying, "Probably.Mrs. Templeton is pretty dependable on
being gone by 5.  If she's late, I'll justget more photos next Friday."

"Sweet. See you tomorrow afternoon at Hoagie's."

"See ya."


John arrived at JayTech at 5:45, still touching up with an electric razor kept in the glovebox for just-such-an-emergency. Within 10 minutes he was being ushered into Veris' office.  John noted that Veris looked tired and upset, both of which were good for business.

Veris gestured John into a chair and leaned forwardin his chair, "Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. Pierce."

"Of course, Mr. Veris. What can the Pierce Agencydo for you?"

Veris leaned back in his chair and paused, thenspoke very carefully, "Mr. Pierce, JayTech Software is competing for avery lucrative government contract.  We think our product is clearly superior to our rivals.  It seems that they may agree.  Our security administrator discovered that someone copied the core code early this morningand we are sure that it was removed from our building."

"Well, Mr. Veris, my associates and I can beginan investigation today and we will do our best to find the person who stole--"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Pierce, but you misunderstandme.  We are already certain who ultimately stole our product. It was Crane Research, our prime competitor.  While I am interestedin you helping us find which of our employees actually copied the information, I am more interested in making sure that Crane Research does not steal our contract."

"While I am not a computer expert, Mr. Veris,I am certain that by this time your product has been copied many times. I would be unable to retrieve it before the damage was done.  I'mnot sure how we can help you in that regard."

Veris opened a drawer and pulled out a CD-ROMcase.  Holding it up, he continued, "Mr. Pierce, this CD holds a programour developers put together.  If it were to somehow be introducedto the Crane Research network it would ensure that our product would not help them gain this contract."

There was a moment of silence while Veris andJohn looked at each other. John slowly pulled a card case from his pocket,removed a blank business card, and sribbled a quick note.

"Unfortunately, sir, the Pierce Agency cannot help you with this part of the investigation. However, if you were to leavethat CD, with directions how to use it, in the mail box at this addressI am sure that I can contact an independent contractor for the work. Unfortunately, his fee is steep: 100 thousand dollars.  The account information is also on the card. I will add my
commission to the bill for the internal investigation to avoid... accounting problems."

John carefully placed the card on the edge ofthe desk. Veris placed the CD case next to it.

"Does this contractor guarantee his work?"

"If he didn't I wouldn't use him, Mr. Veris."

"Very well. The CD and the cash will be delivered this afternoon."


John parked his "drop car" in the woods near the Crane Research main facility.  Like a lot of the new software companies,Crane had used some IPO money to build a massive complex out beyond the suburbs.  To make up for the lack of local police, it had a sizable security force with cars, guns, and dogs.

John pulled on the hood of his Conduit outfit and slipped through the woods.  In minutes he was on a ridge looking down on the main lake to the rear of the compound.  While there was only one building, portions of it were under the hills surrounding thelake, making it appear as if there were actually three buildings.

Each above-ground section had a front and rear lobby, all with guards.  His only piece of luck was the lack of afence, probably because it would interfere with the view.  After watching a car patrol and dog patrol pass, Conduit slipped along a stream, using the underbrush to conceal himself.  Once at the last he carefully lowered himself into the water and edged around to the lobby closest to the water.  There he waited as another dog patrol went by 100 yards away.  Using the shadows cast by picnic tables and chairs, he rolled into the shadows cast around the edge of the building by the lights on the roof.

After a long pause to make sure all was still quiet, he removed some equipment from a waterproof bag under his jumpsuit. Within moments he had attached a circuit board to the opposite edges of a large window with ribbon cables and begun cutting out an opening in the
glass.  In a few moments he was inside the office of some programmer, or middle management type.

After drying himself off with the guy's curtains,Conduit carefully opened the door and began making his way through the building.  Wary of emergency exits and their cameras, he was soon outside one of the wiring closets the instructions.  He quickly picked the lock and entered.

Inside was computer that the instructions said was a "domain controller".  He put the CD in the drive and closed it.  According to the instructions, he was now done; everything would auto-load and run on its own.

He opened the door, stepped outside -- and was punched in the side of the head.

The blow sent him rolling down the hall a few feet.  He came to his feet and saw two guards. The one in the back was pretty non-descript, but the one in front, who must have hit him, looked like a cover boy for Biceps and Pecs magazine.  As the big guard closed in, Conduit was careful to act groggy and threw a wild punch,leaving himself wide open.

Conduit kept it up for a few seconds, throwing lame punches and taking huge blows to the body.  The guard was massively strong, more than human normals could reach but far less than such superhuman strongmen as Blockade or Mastadon.  As another punch hit his ribs,Conduit knew a normal man would be down or dead by now.

But Conduit wasn't a normal man.  Instead,he felt great, somewhat charged.  Each connecting blow was absorbed by his body,  its kinetic force channeled, making him feel stronger and tougher.  After just four or five solid blows, Conduit felt maxed out, like he could run the Boston Marathon or play catch with a Dodge Ram.

The guard, seemingly surprised by Conduit's toughness,drew back for a killing blow, fooled into thinking Conduit was as dazed as he acted.  Instead, Conduit jabbed him in the jaw, staggering himback.  A follow up cross-uppercut combo sent the man down.

Conduit looked at the other guard, who was staring back in astonishment, "So, rent-a-cop, you want some of this?"

Conduit was more than mildly surprised when the man snarled and unleashed a bolt of green lightning from his hands. The static energy exploded across Conduit's chest, throwing him down the hall again and slamming him on his back.  Conduit coughed from the smell of his charred, smoking jumpsuit.

Still coughing, he got up slowly, cursing. "Who the Hell hires paranormal security and puts them
in polyester damn uniforms?"  He could feel more power welling inside him as his body absorbed the energy and assimilated it.

The guard, still snarling, stood over his fallen companion with his fingertips sparking.  Then the sparks grew in size,forming streams of electricty along his arms, ready to be discharged again. He looked up at Conduit.

"Don't ever call me a rent-a-cop, you sonovabitch!"the guard shouted over the alarms that had begun sounding.

Then another jagged bolt of green energy slammed into Conduit.  But he braced himself this time, and began to walk toward the guard.  Apparantly learning from the other guard's mistake,the mutant turned to flee when he saw Conduit unharmed by his explosiveattacks. Conduit raised his arm and released the power bubbling up insideof him -- a burst of green electricity lanced out from his fingers, slamming the guard into a wall and knocking him down.

Conduit checked to make sure the two guards were still breathing -- they were -- and then sprinted for the way he came in. As he dove through the window, he sent a quick blast of lightining intothe board, destroying any evidence he might be leaving behind.

Outside he saw two security cars pulled up outside the lobby.  He blasted one, making the guards duck, and ran right at the other.  Before they could shoot he used his borrowed strength to leap over the vehicle and land in the parking lot.  He ran flat out for the trees, ignoring the bullets whizzing around him -- and actually getting a bit of help from a bullet that glanced off his body.

Once in the trees, he again used his new strength to leap, moving around toward his car and hoping to mislead his pursuers. Within minutes he was in his car and driving fast with his lights off. After two or three minutes, he switched the lights on and kept going, using backroads as he headed for the interstate.  He didn't see any pursuit.Which bothered him.

Twenty minutes later, John parked the drop car in a used car lot and took off on foot to a nearby gas station where he dumped his Conduit outfit in a dumpster, not ripped up and cut as well as burned.  He then picked up the hidden key to a rental car, drove it to a small motel where he showered and changed clothes, dumping his old ones again as well.  After a long drive designed to show any shadowers,he traded cars again and headed to his office.  He picked up his wallet, watch, and other personal items, then headed home for some sleep.

When he got home, it was just starting to show light in the East. Hungry, John shucked off all but his boxers and grabbed a spoon and a new jar of peanut butter.  He channel-surfed for a while,then turned to a movie network. He struggled with the lid to the peanutbutter, fighting with it for almost a whole minute, and finally opened it.

John looked at the lid in his hand.  Just three hours ago, I could bench press a freakin' Mac
truck, he thought.  And now this jar almost kicked my ass.  Why didn't I get a power that doesn't requirethat I get beat up or shot at to work?

With a sigh, John dug into the peanut butter and began to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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