Playing God
by Stephen Tsai with Paul Cocker


December 4, 1983.
The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Fort Detrick, VA.

Colonel Alexander Bryan walked down the hallways with the look of anticipation on his face. Having served his time at Fort Bragg as a field medic for the Rangers and the Green Berets, he had looked forward to getting back to his roots in research.

The past few months of service at the US Army's Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease was a far cry from the meatball surgery he had to perform during the Desert One fiasco. Not that he didn't appreciate his time with the troops, but he was pushing close to 40. It was around that time in a man's life where one's body started to dread carrying those 70 lbs. backpacks on five-mile runs. As the battalion's leading field medic, he had one of the lightest packs but it was still pretty damned heavy. His transfer to Detrick guaranteed that his heaviest loads would now be the test tubes in the labs, a much-needed change of pace and a capstone to a distinguished career.

USAMRIID, along with its civilian counterpart, the Centers for Disease Controls and Preventions in Atlanta, was where the future was built. Both facilities had an esprit de corps only found with truly elite organizations such as the Rangers Bryan left behind. Top people in their fields routinely turned down much more lucrative offers from other facilities to stay here. In addition to the important responsibility of providing the armed forces with a viable biological defense, the facility was the cutting edge on the development of medical technology for improving the human condition. Bryan's responsibility lay with the latter; he was the head researcher for Project Brightstar.

"What do you think, doctor?"

Bryan looked at the gray-haired man as he entered the main laboratory and acknowledged the man. Major Will Clark was his second-in-command. Unlike Bryan, he never served in a line unit, but his medical credentials were impeccable. In the next room separated by one-way glass was a bank of multiple white mice. Each mouse was separated in his own maze with a card listing exact dosages. The little guys were cute with their little pink eyes and pointy noses, but it did little good to empathize with them, considering what they were there for. "So how are our guests today?"

"Getting sick of this crap the Army calls cheese, I suspect." Clark paused and lost his smile. Bryan could be such a humorless bastard sometimes. "Test 7a is showing our best times. Little guy seems to know exactly where we put it. 6f isn't far behind."

Bryan looked at his pad to cross-reference the test cases. Brightstar was intended to improve intelligence and mental resistance to enemy interrogation techniques. Bryan had his initial misgivings when he heard about the project; the brain was about as unknown as it got when it came to the human body. But then again, Surgeon-Extraordinary Sir John Ericksen said the same thing about the chest and abdomen in 1873. Perhaps it was time to take that final step. "7a is the one with Eph-3C, 6f was injected with Eph-3B."

"Dosages equivalent to 10ccs for a 150-pound human," confirmed Clark.

"It's a little early to be talking about that," emphasized Bryan.

"The brass is getting anxious. I think they're getting squirrelly on the Hill."

Bryan silently cursed at the news. It was a lousy way to practice medicine, but every form of medical research had to play the political game. It was simple fiscal reality. If you produced results, you got federal attention and funds. Fail and that funding got diverted to "sexier" diseases like AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. And while no one disputed the importance of researching those diseases, funding cuts at this point would basically kill Brightstar. He cleared his throat and muttered so quietly, Clark had to ask him to repeat himself.

"I said where exactly are they going to get volunteers?"

Clark shrugged. "I suppose the same place Pharmaco gets them."

"Funny man," deadpanned Bryan. He motioned at the glass. "Tell them that."

The test mouse looked up as if called. After putting the cheese down, it propped itself up on it's rear legs and stared right at the mirrored glass. The whiskers twitched as if the small rodent was sniffing the air.

"What do you think, huh?" asked Clark.

"About what?" replied Bryan as he made a note on a clip pad.

Clark motioned to the glass. "Do you think they... know we're here?"

"Don't be silly," bristled Bryan. "E-ph3 isn't some miracle serum. It can't do anything that the brain can't do on it's own."

"I don't know," Clark pondered idly. "You ask me, that little guy looks like he's staring right at the face of God. And understanding it for the first time..."

******

January 24th, 1984.
Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital
Washington, DC.

Colonel Samuel Leonard winced with pain as he dragged the wheeled IV to the waiting room. Doing his best to hide his weakness, he made his way to the visitors' area with as much dignity as he could muster.

"How are they treating you, Sam?"

Leonard looked at Bryan with a wiry smile. "I think I figured out why hospitals all serve Jell-O. It's about the only thing that they can't screw up." Seeing Bryan's downcast expression, he snapped, "Oh come on; can't a man lose a little weight without everyone whining about it?"

That broke the tension and Bryan finally smiled to his old friend. "So, anything you want?"

"Right now, I'd kill for a candy bar." Leonard shook his head. "I mean, it's not that I have to worry about my fitness evaluation anymore, but you know how anal doctors are." He paused. "No offense."

"So what does Charlie say? Did he give you a prognosis?"

"Maybe." Leonard sighed. "That's what he told me. Maybe." He looked at Bryan with a knowing expression. "Sounded suspiciously like... no."

Bryan nodded slowly. Bone cancer was one of the "Big-C's" worst incarnations. Even when caught early, a patient's chances weren't good. Dr. Charles Locke told Leonard what every doctor tells his patients, but Sam was always the kind who wanted to bad news straight. Whether it was in the swamps near Khe Sanh, Vietnam, or the Kavir Desert near Iran, he led his men by example, until an annual medical check last year handed him the bad news. Good soldier, good man, Bryan knew. "Listen to Charlie. He's a good guy and he'll take care of you."

Leonard nodded then looked up. "So how's your pet project going?"

Bryan looked down. "You know I can't tell you the specifics."

"Oh come on. Who the hell am I going to tell?"

Bryan looked at Leonard and hesitated. If it were anyone else, he'd change topics or shut up, but Leonard was one of the most honorable men he ever served together with. Fought together. Bled together. And if he couldn't trust Leonard, then whom could he trust? "We're starting trials with human volunteers in a week."

"Makes people smarter or something like that, right?"

"That's the theory."

"Maybe one of them will come up with a cure for bone cancer," Leonard replied lightly. He then turned serious. Bryan had done his best to hide his misgivings, but Leonard knew him too well. "But you don't think so."

"Major Clark and General Patrick say that we've done enough tests. They think it's time to prove what we can do. I don't know..." he drifted off with his thoughts. "Maybe I'm just being a coward."

"This coming from the man who helped me carry two bleeding Rangers back to the evac chopper twelve years ago?" snorted Leonard. "Clark and Patrick have spent too much time in the damned Pentagon and the Hill."

"We all have our duties. The idea is good. And if I'm not the one keeping them in line, they'll get some political stooge to do it."

Leonard nodded and kept his remaining doubts to himself. Who was he to dispute the need for medical research?

******

March 4th, 1984.
USAMRIID.
Fort Detrick, VA.

"...and Subject F4 is showing the most changes. Her IQ's tested almost twenty points higher."

General Patrick smiled with relief. Although the project was under Colonel Bryan's command, it was his administrative ass on the line if things went wrong. At the same time, he had to produce results, and although no one questioned Bryan's medical expertise, he was such a conservative son-of-a-bitch. Always fretting about side effects and long-term consequences. Which was why he had assigned Major Clark to help grease the wheels when needed. Though he wasn't the innovator Bryan was, he was a brilliant technician, and he wasn't handicapped by memories of bleeding bodies being stitched together with the medical equivalent of spit and wire. Bryan also disliked the administrative aspects of command, which was why Major Clark handled the weekly command briefing. "Twenty points is quite a bit. Is that confirmed?"

"Well, IQ tests can be subjective, of course," Clark demurred. He had his conservative side as well; especially when it came to making promises that would be tough to deliver. "But we do have a way to improve yields even more."

"You have my attention," said Patrick as he leaned forward.

"The lab boys have just finished cooking the prototypes. They're based on Dr. Bryan's latest breakthrough." He handed over a separate packet.

"E-ph4...," Patrick whispered almost reverently.

"E-ph3 and its predecessors worked by simply accelerating the brainwave signals by chemically encouraging the brain's electrochemical reactions. E-ph4's completely different." Clark pulled out a series of color-coded MRI scan photos of rat brains. "It takes all the principles we've learned from the previous generations, and takes them to the next step. It bonds directly to the brain synapses and enables multiple patterns to process simultaneously. Whereas E-ph3 simply made existing activity faster, E-ph4, well, we simply can't even begin to predict what it's going to accomplish."

"Like multiprocessing a computer?"

"Right."

"And what does Colonel Bryan say about that?"

Clark paused. "I was meaning to discuss it with him this afternoon. I think both of us can anticipate what he's going to say. And truthfully, he would have a point."

Patrick smiled at Clark. "Would you mind explaining that? Bryan's caution rubbing off on you?"

Clark hesitated and looked nervous. "Sir, I know we're getting political pressure to produce, but..."

"Spit it out man," Patrick urged gently. "Let me worry about the Hill."

"Sir, we don't even know how to properly harness a multi-processing computer. All we end up using them for is running single-scalar programs faster. I checked with our friends at Fort Meade and even their best computer jockeys admit that programming techniques are way behind hardware design. And the human brain is several orders of magnitude more complex than even the most sophisticated computer. Even if the brain developed correctly, who can say what will happen to the personality, or even sanity of the person involved?"

General Patrick stood up and faced his window deep in thought. He had pushed for this project and the initial results from E-ph3 were promising, but... boring. No, that wasn't right, he corrected himself. Twenty points of IQ was actually quite substantial; that was two standard deviations above norm. Men of science would have understood the implications; most of them would have been in awe. In a just world, Dr. Bryan would then have probably been nominated for the Lasker Trophy or even a Nobel Prize. But the politicians on the Hill rarely made decisions based on logic or science, even when they themselves understood it, which Patrick strongly doubted would have been the case. They made decisions based on popularity polls and emotional gut feeling that they could achieve from the six o'clock news. Twenty points of IQ; not exactly something that would get Joe Average Citizen excited or inspired, even though most of them could have probably used it, he reflected ironically. And once the initial articles left Scientific America, the political funding would dry up; he was certain of it. He turned around and faced Major Clark. "Are there any subjects from the test group we can spare?"

Clark hesitated again. He thought about all those times he'd clashed with Colonel Bryan about being overly cautious for moral reasons. He had felt at the time that Bryan was allowing overly sentimental ideas of right and wrong to interfere with the path of progress. Maybe he needed to rethink that. "F12 has been, well, behind the others. Not really her fault, I guess. She's a volunteer off the streets from the local indigenous population." Meaning she was a street-person both men knew. No one who would be missed.

"I want you to start administering small doses of E-ph4 to Subject F12. Monitor her progress minute by minute. If things go well, start administering it to some of the other slower E-ph3 subjects. Make sure you send me a progress report as soon as anything substantive occurs."

"Yes sir." Clark turned to leave.

"And Major?"

"Yes sir?"

"Keep your notes safe. Do you know what I mean?"

Major Clark closes his eyes and was thankful that his back was turned. It wouldn't have done his reputation as the "Iceman" for Patrick to see the expression on his face. "Completely sir."

After Clark left the room, Patrick picked up his phone and dialed a familiar number. "Sir, we have an interesting development. I think you and the committee will be pleased."

******

March 10th, 1984.
USAMRIID.
Fort Detrick, VA.

Bryan hovered over his patient with a look of grave concern on his face. Next to him, two nurses were administering fluids and taking measurements. What the hell had gone wrong, he fumed. Things were going so well at first. Over the first thirty days, the patients were making slow but steady progress. They exhibited some personality quirks from time to time, but after confirming a stable brain scan with each of them, Bryan chalked that up to the individual personality traits of each person.

But no longer. Now two patients had gone down, one to massive psychological breakdowns, bordering on psychosis and paranoia, the other to massive physical trauma. Patient F12 had been first; her mind started exhibit massive growth about four days ago. Memory tests, mathematical tests, cognitive abilities all shot off the scale. Unfortunately, F12's creative and personality sides had failed to keep up. Unable to reconcile with number, concepts, random memories and images shooting through her mind at a pace her personality simply couldn't keep up, the schism was driving her mad. She became withdrawn, then catatonic within a matter of days. Now, she simply laid down on her bed, reciting meaningless random equations, names, and foreign phrases that no one could understand.

M16 had been even worse. One day after F12 started to break down, M16 suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Despite being taken to the emergency room, M16 was now comatose as well. An MRI revealed uncontrolled growth of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex of his brain. With the rest of his brain failing to adapt, the increase in cells put crushing pressure on the Circle of William, which led to rupture. Blowout, as one operating room doctors said. Although he still lived, his prognosis was terminal.

Even worse, their rapid reversals had a horrific effect on the morale of the rest of the patients, staff, and he admitted, himself. What had gone wrong? All testing and experimentation had been suspended indefinitely until the causes were isolated. Bryan was running every conceivable test he could think of on F12, who's name was Mary Clancy, he had troubled himself to learn. A nice looking girl, short red hair, who couldn't have been older than twenty when she signed up. Yes, she signed a waiver, but sure as hell, she didn't sign up to be turned into a vegetable for the rest of her life. And it was all his fault.

"Any changes?"

The nurse finished hanging a saline and nutrient solution on the tree and shook her head. "She mentioned something little ones."

"Did she have family?"

"None that she identified."

Bryan sighed with exhaustion. He had been awake for nearly thirty hours trying to decipher the puzzle. Brain wave scans, MRI, X-rays all revealed spikes and valleys, but no clues. Nothing like this had turned up during the initial trials and he was at a loss. E-ph3, even when administered incorrectly, didn't make these kinds of fundamental changes in the subject's brain like this.

"Almost 300,000...," Mary whispered almost inaudibly.

Bryan lifted his head. What was that? He touched her forehead and spoke with as much sympathy as he could offer. "What's 300,000?"

"296,312 of them...," she whispered. "I'll miss them when I'm gone."

Bryan looked up to the ceiling where Mary's vacant eyes were staring. All he saw where the usual government-issue stucco ceiling tiles. He had no idea what she was talking about; maybe he should humor her. "Um... where are they? Can they come with you?"

Mary's eyes focused on one of the crossbeams above her. "They... can't... leave... 296,312 of them. I named them. They're pointing at me... waving good bye."

"It's... not time to say good-bye," Bryan lied. Never take away hope, he remembered.

Mary's head slowly turned towards Bryan and she stared at him for what felt like an eternity. "Please... tell him... goodbye..." And then  her eyes began to close.

"Who?"

Mary closed her eyes and passed into deep slumber. As she did so, a single whispered name escaped her lips. "S... Sam..."

Bryan shuddered and sat upright before composing himself. He must have misheard it. She's delirious. He was sure he hadn't mentioned it to her. Maybe someone else on the staff? Before he could pursue the thought further, another nurse came and handed him a clip pad.

"I think you'd better take a look at this."

Bryan glanced at the header. "Blood-hormone test? E-ph3 doesn't travel by blood."

"I know doctor," the nurse replied patiently. She knew Bryan hadn't gotten much sleep these past few days. "We ran a blood-hormone test, just as a last resort. Take a look at what showed up."

Bryan looked over the list of compounds and proteins. They were completely ordinary. All except one. His eyes froze at the bottom of the list. "Oh my God...." He swallowed. "How long?"

"We think sometime last week. It must have happened...," the nurse shook her head, "right around when all this started."

Bryan handed the clip pad back to the nurse as his body went numb. Bad enough he had destroyed Mary's life. Another name had to be tacked onto that list -- Mary's child.

******

March 12th, 1984.
Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.
Washington, DC.

He had come to hate this place. Entirely unprofessional, he knew, but there was no stopping the association. Bryan did his best not to show despair, but it would have been easier to stand up to a hail of bullets. What little composure he had crumbled with the sight of a grieving Elizabeth Leonard with her young daughter Jane.

"Alex," Elizabeth Leonard sighed as she came to greet him in the waiting room. "Thank you for coming."

"How are you holding up?" Bryan asked instinctively, then immediately regretted it. Such a stupid thing to say, but fortunately Elizabeth didn't take it that way.

"We... going to be okay. They're keeping him comfortable."

Bryan nodded. At this point, that was as much as any hospital could do. "Is he awake?"

Elizabeth nodded. "He'll be glad you're here. He's been asking for you since this morning."

If anything, Leonard looked worse than before. His complexion was ashen and his body, once a robust 200 pounds of rock-hard muscle, had shriveled down to half that. His hair was completely gone; a common side effect of chemotherapy. But his eyes were still bright. Bryan would settle for that.

"How you holding out, old-timer?"

Leonard smiled weakly at the sight of his long-time friend. "Thinking about old times. One keeps coming back. Remember Pyon Te?"

It took a moment for Bryan's memory to click, but only a moment. Certain events in life, one never forgets. "Oh God, yes! 1969, I wasn't even a doc yet. Just a lowly LT field medic."

Leonard closed his eyes to reflect the moment more clearly. "You were good enough that day. Remember, it was down... to just... the two of us?"

Bryan took Leonard's hand as the events from fifteen years ago played back in his mind. A tiny, nothing, little village, suddenly surrounded by VC. Half their A-team went down in the first mortar salvo, with the rest of the team dragging their compatriots back to the top of the hill. Outnumbered twenty to one and surrounded, their only advantages were high ground, cover and superior training. That and the AK-47 couldn't shoot for shit at distance and their M-16s could. Leonard had rallied what was left of the team, dividing the approaching enemy troops into sectors for each man. One shot, one kill, he ordered his men. Ammo was limited and they didn't have enough to hose the area like conventional troops would have. Artillery fell around them, cutting men down like meat as Bryan, then a young lieutenant, called in air and artillery strikes and exfiltration choppers, while trying to keep four freshly-amputated men alive long enough for the pickup. In the end, when Leonard was the only man left shooting, Bryan had to pick up one of his injured men's rifle and cover Leonard's back. Despite all odds, the Green Berets' superior marksmanship and Leonard's cool head had carried the day. Within thirty minutes, two "Jolly Green Giants" came roaring in with Willie-Pete and Redeye rockets, and the Cong's resolve, already weakened by the surgical dismantling of their phalanx from the Green Beret snipers, fell apart long enough to save ten of the sixteen men from their A-team. "Like Newman and Redford."

"Facing death... wasn't so bad then, was it? And we've had fifteen more... great years together." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Sometimes, I think... I'm back there now, facing death once again..."

Bryan swallowed. "I wish I was with you this time."

Leonard's eyes widened for a moment. "You are. We've been side by side the whole time. Now it's... time to pull out... Lieutenant. We're... going home." He took a moment to get his breath. "Listen, I want you to promise me something..."

"Anything."

"Beth and Janey... when I'm gone... they're going to need someone they can count on. Someone they trust. I can't think of anyone... I'd rather see..."

"I understand," Bryan replied quietly. "Janey'll go to college; you've got my word."

"She's gonna...." Leonard was interrupted by a brief coughing episode. "...gonna hate you for that, man. She never... studied enough. Beth...? Just let her know..."

"She knows." Bryan gripped Leonard's hand for what he suspected would be the last time. "She knows, man."

Outside, the parking garage was gloomy as the sun began to set. Bryan made his way to his car. He was surprised that Elizabeth and Jane weren't in the waiting room when he left the ward. Probably just as well; he needed time to himself before he'd be ready to shoulder someone else's feelings.

"I'm very sorry for your friend, Colonel," said a voice from the darkness.

"General?" recognized Bryan.

"I thought I'd find you here," confirmed Patrick as he stepped out of the shadows. "You always were a sentimental son-of-a-bitch."

Bryan bit his lip before saying anything he'd regret. "General, with all due respect, I'm really not in the mood to talk right now. I'll see you back at Detrick tomorrow."

Patrick stepped forward. "I'm afraid this can't wait. I'm sorry to have to inform you that I'm having Subject F12 transferred from your command to a more appropriate facility."

Bryan stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly. "You did what...?"

Patrick continued. "USAMRIID doesn't need another scandal right now. F12 is clearly no longer functional to the project."

"Her name is Mary Clancy!" Bryan defended. "Where is she?"

"That isn't your concern," Patrick replied coldly. "Don't you think you're getting just a little too close to your work, Colonel? It's clear that E-ph4 is not fulfilling expectations. I've had her anonymously transferred to a facility that can take care of her needs for however long she has."

Patrick's words took an extra long moment to sink in. Perhaps it was the sheer disbelief that made it hard to acknowledge.

"E-ph4?" Bryan's voice began to rise as the pieces from the last few frantic days fell into place. "Clark's been administering E-ph4 to our test patients?"

"He was doing so on my direct authority."

"In the name of God, why? We haven't even finished testing it with rats, let alone humans!"

General Patrick paused and spoke with a measured voice. "The decision was made, in the best interests of the project. We chose who we could afford to lose based on certain realistic expectations of society."

Bryan looked at the man with disbelief. He had known that Patrick wasn't exactly the most compassionate of men, but to stoop to this... "What...gives you the right... to play God? To pick and choose... who's worthy of caution and who's not?"

"Don't be so naive, Colonel," Patrick coldly replied. "As doctors, we've had to make choices on who lives and who dies all the time in triage. As soldiers, we're expected to minimize overall casualties with a policy of acceptable loss. You've done it yourself just as I have!"

"There's a difference, General!" Bryan retorted. "I never based that decision on rank or political ambition! I never gambled with my patients' lives to further my own research!"

"Be that as it may," Patrick replied harshly. "We have to move past that unfortunate situation and I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to come with me. There are certain individuals who require your expertise."

Bryan's angry retort was cut short by the unmistakable sound of metal against metal; machined bolts being slid back into position his memory reminded him. He turned to the sounds of boot heels clicking on the hard concrete to see three hooded and uniformed men carrying rifles and side arms.

"What's the meaning of this, General?" Bryan asked quickly and suspiciously. Part of him already knew, but wanted to deny it nonetheless.

The first man pointed his pistol with authority to Bryan. Behind him, two other agents covered them with rifles. "You will come with us now."

"What's this all about?"

"You will be silent!" The second came close with his rifle, and thrust it forward in an intimidating manner. In one single motion, Bryan seized the rifle barrel and swatted the first agent's pistol out of position. The third agent raised his rifle, but froze as his two companions were blocking his shot. Bryan then yanked the rifle towards him, and thrust his elbow into the man's neck.

"Shit!" exclaimed the first agent, who took a step back and fired his pistol, clipping Bryan in the shoulder. Bryan winced; it'd been almost four years since he'd been shot; he'd forgotten how much those things hurt. He took the butt of the rifle and rammed it into the man's chin, dropping him like a sack of potatoes, as he ran for cover.

"Take him!" yelled the second agent, clutching his bleeding mouth gingerly.

The third agent fired just as Bryan made it behind a concrete column. His heart was pounding in his chest; it had been over three years since he had to take down a Green Beret in a training exercise at Bragg; even longer since the last time he had done it for real. His current emotional and ethical issues evaporated in a rush of adrenaline; what the hell did they want? He turned and fired a warning burst, which forced his pursuers to seek cover themselves. As he did so, he felt the pressure of a pistol at his back. He turned and froze as Patrick covered him with his Browning 9mm pistol.

"Don't make this more difficult than this has to be Colonel!"

Instinctively, Bryan batted Patrick's arm aside and dropped him to the ground with a Judo lock. He picked up the pistol and held it to Patrick's chest as he trained the rifle on the position of his other assailants. "What's this all about?"

"Don't be a fool Bryan! They just want to talk!"

Sure they do, Bryan fumed to himself. Terrorists; possibly foreign agents? Probably wanted to build a bio-warfare weapon. Bryan had helped USAMRIID set up such scenarios on paper as Red Team Commander before being assigned to the research division. Well, no way he was giving up; and he was sure that UCMJ/FCI would want to talk to General Patrick. He looked around and saw what he wanted; a fire alarm. Taking careful aim, he fired, setting off the fire alarms. With the hospital's constant police and military presence, help would only be seconds away.

The additional figures in the shadows grimaced. Well, this wasn't going well at all. They had hoped not to have to lower themselves to having to take direct action to take down a mere common-born, but their agents' incompetence had forced their hands. The lead figure nodded. "Mastodon, if you please..."

Without warning, the large powerful figure charged out of the shadows, ripping the concrete column in half. Bryan emptied his pistol into the Mastodon's face, which only made him angrier. He reached forward with a speed that belied his mass and seized Bryan by the neck and threw him into the ground like a rag doll. Bryan coughed up blood as he crashed into the parking lot. Mastodon reared back to deliver the final blow, only to stop at the sound of a single voice.

"Enough!" the voice commanded. "He's no good to us dead."

Reluctantly, Mastodon stepped back as three more people came into view. Bryan's eyes focused through the haze of pain and showed recognition as the full group came into view. Oh hell, he thought. Like most elite troops, he had been briefed of the threat of metahumans, but never gave it much thought. Until today. "What do you want?"

The armored form of Autocrat stepped out of the shadows, the very air around him galvanized by his presence. "Come now doctor... surely someone as brilliant as you can figure that out for himself..." Behind the cavernous opening of mighty overlord's helmet, twin eyes pulsed and glowed.

******

March 12th, 1984.
Private air transport.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

The transport was composed of alloys not found anywhere else in the world. The design was decades ahead of its time. It was faster than any fighter craft and invisible to all known forms of detection. Capable of VTOL and armed with enough armament to challenge any would-be attacker, it was the result of years of design by some of the most brilliant minds in the industry. Autocrat had his standards.

Autocrat, Baroness, Metatron and Mastodon surveyed their guests with confidence as they entered the main cockpit. Colonel Bryan sat in the center chair, restraint by shackles. Flanking him were the three agents and General Patrick. As the trio of metahumans entered, the agents and Patrick bowed and saluted. "Hail to the Royal Elite!"

Autocrat acknowledged the greeting with only the slightest of nods; the proper way to show respect for underlings. He then narrowed his eyes and stared at all three agents. "Before we land, I want to know exactly what happened in the garage? As it was, only the Baroness' time-shifting abilities enabled our departure without incident. Such was not in our plans."

The lead agent stepped forward and swallowed. Mustering as much courage as he could, "Your Eminence, I beg forgiveness. We could not have anticipated that the target would resist the way he did."

Autocrat bored into his agent with his eyes. "And exactly what did you anticipate? That he would simply walk into your arms?"

"M-mere luck, my l-lord...!" stammered the agent. "The f-fortunes of chance...!"

"I think not," interrupted Metatron. "This commoner clearly has some rudimentary training." His eyes glanced over the rest of the agents, who did their best to avoid his gaze. "Clearly better training than these worthless fools."

"Indeed," nodded Autocrat. "General Patrick, would you care to enlighten us?"

Patrick nodded and spoke. "Before he was assigned to me, Colonel Bryan served with the US Army Rangers and the Green Berets. He's Airborne qualified and trained in field operations. He was the Battalion Aid commander at Desert One. Before that, he served as an A-Team field medic for the Green Berets in Vietnam."

"I see...," Autocrat replied coldly before turning to the capture team's commander. "An occasional failure, I can tolerate. But stupidity is inexcusable. Basic research is part of every mission. You should have been prepared for the target's capabilities."

"Master, no...! I had no idea we were..."

The agent never finished his excuse as a ball of white light came forth from Autocrat's powered armor. The ball followed the agent as he fled, and engulfed him. Within seconds, the light faded, leaving behind the agent's empty uniform and equipment on the floor.

"A molecular destabilizer, General Patrick," Autocrat boasted. "It has an interesting effect on human flesh, does it not? By releasing the molecular bonds between the larger, more complex molecules, it breaks down the basic organic matter into methane, carbon dioxide and trace residues. Clean, neat, leaves the victim's possessions intact and unlike most weapons, completely safe to use on airplanes and submersibles. I trust this demonstration is not lost on you?"

"I... I understand, my Lord...," Patrick replied submissively.

For himself, Bryan could hardly believe the abrupt turn of events. A large part of his mind still have trouble accepting that his commanding officer had gone rogue, but the evidence was clear. My God, he exclaimed to himself. How deep did the corruption go?

"And as for you, Doctor," growled Mastodon, "you would be best advised to give Autocrat your complete cooperation. It would be quite painful for you otherwi--"

Bryan spat in Mastodon's face. He knew he didn't stand a chance against this group. He had strong suspicions that he was probably going to die tonight. But no way was he going to be remembered as a coward or a traitor.

"Plebian bastard, you dare...!" yelled an enraged Mastodon who reared back to split this insignificant flea's head open.

"Idiot!" Baroness moved to restrain Mastodon just before he could connect. "That's exactly what he wants you to do!"

"Remarkable cunning for a common-born," Autocrat mused. "You tried to deny me the information that is rightfully mine the only way you could. And it almost worked."

"You can take your elitist crap and shove it!" Bryan retorted.

"As always, the inferior caste rebels against the worthy." Autocrat turned to the rest of the Royal Elite, the shadows of his helmet shrouding his smile, and shook his head sympathetically. "I suppose it's only to be expected for them to be jealous of us. After all, we are the superior race."

"His tongue is insolent, Autocrat," Baroness noted seductively. "Perhaps he would be more cooperative if I aged him ten or twenty years?"

"A tempting idea," nodded Autocrat. "But unfortunately, a senile old man cannot think, and robbed of his intellect, he's of no use to me. Fortunately, there are other alternatives. He is very close to Colonel Leonard, who is currently residing in the Army's cancer ward at Walter Reed Hospital."

"Nice try, King George," Bryan replied defiantly. "Sam's facing death already. And even if he weren't, the last thing he'd want would be watching a meta with delusions of godhood getting that information. He'd kill himself first."

"My apologies, Doctor. Perhaps I did not make myself clear." Autocrat smiled as he turned on a large-screen monitor. Bryan watched with horror as he saw uniformed agents holding Elizabeth Leonard and their daughter Jane at gunpoint. Although they were doing their best to maintain their composure, both of them knew that death was imminent. "A shame to waste innocent life. So full of potential; who knows what they would contribute to my future domain. Alas, life can be so tragic. One moment, looking ahead to the future with all the treasured moments still to be savored. The next...." Autocrat shook his head with regret and fell silent. Nothing more needed to be said.

Bryan looked down as he was forced to weigh between patriotic duty and personal honor. On the one hand, his oath as a military officer, sworn to protect and defend his country. On the other, his promise to a dying man. Sure, the patriotic thing to do would have been to hold out, no matter what. But at what cost? His own life, he was willing to risk. He had already taken such risks in the swamps of Vietnam and the deserts of Iran and Saudi Arabia. But the lives of his best friend's wife and daughter; lives he swore on the man's deathbed to protect? Could he justify sacrificing them in the name of duty? And live with himself? What would Leonard say? Leonard might have understood. Leonard probably wouldn't have cast blame. But he'd blame himself. And he'd never forgive himself. No, he realized; he didn't have a choice. Damn it all...

******

May 21st, 1984.
Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.
Washington, DC.

The unexpected disappearance of Colonel Bryan and General Patrick, coupled with the rapid deterioration of several of the Brightstar test subjects, caused chaos at Brightstar and USAMRIID. All manner of rumors and gossip floated through the hallways. Through it all, Major Clark tried to continue with his work, but found himself distracted by his own suspicions, both real and suspected. But without proof, there was little he could do. And with both Patrick and Bryan gone, he was left holding the bag. Patrick had ordered him to use E-ph4, but didn't bother to put those orders in writing. Which made him responsible. And yes, deep down, he regretted going around Bryan. Clearly he had been right on this one.

Which didn't change a thing for Clark. As the cliché went, life went on and so did government projects. Although Brightstar was in hiatus, Clark's work with Brightstar segued well with another project. He looked the folder over. It was a plan to develop tactical weapons with self-guided intelligence. Weapon systems that could think and adapt like a trained soldier. The system would provide the armored protection and firepower to counter the growing number of metahumans that threatened national security. The physical prototype was already here. Clark's expertise with neurological and neuro-net systems would complete the intelligence design. Now all that was needed was a volunteer. Fortunately, the perfect one was available.

Clark walked through the cancer ward, doing his best not to look directly at the patients. To anyone, the scene was heartbreaking. True, once in a while, a lucky one would beat the odds. But for the most part, cancer was still the plague of the 20th century. It was diseases such as these that had persuaded him to go into research instead of practice. It was seeing the suffering that motivated him to take a few shortcuts from time to time. After all, if medical research saved generations of lives a few years earlier, wasn't that worth a few risks? Even with the Brightstar fiasco, the goals were still noble. Wasn't the chance for brilliance worth the risk?

Inside Leonard's room, Clark quietly entered and hung his coat on the hook. After patiently waiting for the nurse to take care of his symptomatic support, he stepped forward and let Leonard initiate the conversation.

"A-alex...?" Leonard asked weakly.

"I'm sorry Colonel, but Dr. Bryan isn't here. I'm one of his co-workers. My name is Major Will Clark."

Leonard's eyes widened a little. "Yeah, I've heard of you," in a tone that could be best described as unkind. "What do you want?"

"To offer you a second chance, of course." Clark held up a folder marked "Top Secret: Project Think Tank -- SAP/SAR Eyes Only."

"Another one of your pet projects? No thanks."

"Listen, Colonel," Clark said reasonably. "Bryan tells me that you like to hear the truth, no matter how harsh. So I'm going to pay you the compliment of being honest. The truth is, your condition is terminal. In a week at most, you're going to die. No one at this ward can change that, no matter how much anyone wants to. But I can."

Leonard looked at Clark with a dubious expression. "And just what kind of... miracle are you proposing, Major?" He didn't feel comfortable calling the man "doctor".

"It's a long shot Colonel, I don't deny it. But consider this; if it fails, then you'll lose nothing. If it succeeds...," he paused for effect, "you'll have a chance to see your family again. Isn't that worth any risk?"

Leonard stared long and hard at the folder in front of him. The pain of his deteriorating body made for an unwelcome distraction and the pain medication made it difficult to concentrate. He remembered that Bryan didn't care for the man's ethics, but said that he was a decent technician. And yes, he couldn't deny it. To hold Elizabeth in his arms, to see Jane grow up, he'd pay any price. Even make a deal with the devil himself.

******

July 23rd, 1984.
Tokyo Metropolitan Komagome Hospital.
Tokyo, Japan

Japan's Diet Building was a particularly ugly structure in a city not known for the beauty of its architecture. The Prime Minister 's office had a view of green grass in the courtyard, but Onuki Takao wasn't looking at the view outside but inside. He smiled and bowed as his coalition within the LDP watched Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro sign his party's finance bill into law. After the appropriate toasts, self-congratulations and photo opportunities, the meeting broke and the legislators returned to their offices. On his way back, Takao's secretary notified him to head to the hospital.

On his way to Komagome Hospital, Takao reflected on how he had done these past few years. He was a senior member of Japan's most powerful political party. With his efforts, Japan's economy stood ready to take its place as the premiere economy of the world. His own rise in the political world had been nothing short of meteoric. When he was a young man, he had dreamed of this. But now that he was one step away from achieving the goal that he had strived for his entire life, the dream was ashes.

It was his own fault, of course. Like the samurai in "47 Ronin," his life and destruction was preordained. Unlike the Ronin in the Kabuki play, his was not a fall with honor. The first step was his own marriage. Like most politicians, he needed money, and like most of them, he turned to the country's zaibatsu. A senior party member introduced him to the Tanaka clan; a powerful magistrate who owned one of the country's leading software companies. The greetings were cordial and Masako was very pretty. It wasn't until the night they were wed did he discover Masako's secret.

The second step to his own indentureship was that fateful meeting one night in Akasaka perfecture. Told to meet a major contributor in the Rose room in the Ana Hotel, he waited in the small, intimate room. He remembered that the decor was simple but elegant. He bowed and shook hands with an imposing gaijin and an elegant lady. His words were powerful and appealed to his ego. He spoke about how those who were born into power were destined to rule. With his help, Takao and his family would be among those privileged few. To prove his point, he arranged to have certain opposition party members removed from power. In retrospect, he should have realized that something was wrong. A gaijin shouldn't have had such power; not unless he was a metahuman like Masako. When the pieces finally fell into place, he met his patron in his true form. The glint of his steely, neo-Roman physique gave away his identity before he stepped entirely into the light...

...Autocrat.

As he entered the hospital maternity ward, Takao shook his head to clear his thoughts. No sense bothering Masako with his doubts. It was their first child, and although he admitted being intimidated by what Masako could do, he couldn't deny that their partnership was mutually beneficial. Perhaps the child would change things for the better. He still clung to that hope.

"Hajime mashite," he bowed to the senior nurse. "I'm Onuki Takao. I'm here to see my wife."

The nurse bowed and looked through the register. "She is in Maternity ward, Room #21."

"Domo arigato gozaimasu," he bowed in acknowledgement. The hallways were clean and white. He entered the room and smiled as Masako was in the final phase of delivery.

"Your bill was a success." Masako smiled her knowing smile; it was a statement, not a question.

Takao nodded and kept silent. He had long ago resigned that he would have no secrets from Masako, so he changed the subject. "How is our baby?"

Masako smiled again. "He is... our child."

Takao hid his downcast as best he could, not that it would matter to Masako. Her statement was innocent to the attending nurses. To him, it meant something much more sinister. She had already mentally scanned the child and confirmed his worst fears. Onuki Katsuyari was his mother's child. Instead, he nodded and forced a smile. "Then he is truly blessed."

Masako relaxed as the nurses finished their duties and presented their new child. "You must... call him..."

Takao sighed. "Must it be now?"

Masako's smile slipped. The one thing they feared together was their mysterious patron. "He will know if we do not."

Takao nodded and excused himself. Once he was outside what he hoped was his wife's telepathic range, he cursed himself. How he wished things were different. No, it wasn't bad enough that his thoughts were an open book to his wife. Or that he couldn't help but wonder from time to time if his thoughts were his own; he had seen Masako influence other people's thoughts. How much did that smile conceal? How much was his life being directed by another?

But he could have adapted to that in time. What made it worse was his allegiance to the Royal Elite. In exchange for their power, resources and knowledge, he was required to be a loyal servant. And Autocrat had made his message clear; he wanted to know when Katsuyari-chan was born. Not for a baby-shower, he sarcastically thought; but because he wanted to know as soon as possible if Masako's gift was passed to the child. Masako and he had spoken in hushed fearful whispers during the nights about the impending birth and how they may lose their child to the Elite. The only good thing about the whole episode was that their mutual fear of the Elite brought them closer together. As it brought together passengers from a sinking ship...

But no, she was right. He had signed the deal and he had to follow through. As he picked up the phone and dialed a memorized phone number, he wondered if it was his own Kabuki play coming to a close.

******

July 30th, 1984.
Royal Elite Arctic Headquarters.
Greenland.

Autocrat smiled as he listened to the news as his senior contact in Japan reported in. So the child was gifted after all. Excellent; another one of the Elite would come to be. He would have to make arrangements to have the child brought to his base, so that he could be properly shaped, trained and indoctrinated. Of course, he would have to double-check his mental defenses; it would be embarrassing indeed for the child to influence his lord.

With that settled, he proceeded to the laboratory established in his beachhead headquarters with Mastodon and Metatron in tow. On one side, a wiry and unkempt professor in a white coat examined a set of glass cages with spiders and insects scurrying in sparse environments. On the other, Colonel Bryan watched a compound come to a slow boil.

"Dr. Arachno?" inquired Autocrat.

"Your Excellency, I have succeeded in mapping out the DNA for the Xenesthis immanis." Arachno's hands almost shook with excitement. "I am convinced that the genetic material of such a spider can be adapted into a variety of uses, including improvements to other species by genetic splicing."

Autocrat nodded nonchalantly. He really didn't expect much from Arachno; he had been a biologist and arachnophile, who lost his credibility in the scientific community, and not without cause, Autocrat reflected. Still, the man was undeniably brilliant in his own field and Autocrat had hoped that there might have been something worth salvaging from the man's knowledge. Fortunately, he had more expectations of his next station.

"And how are you doing this morning Dr. Bryan?" Autocrat's manner was smooth and polite. He could afford to be magnanimous; he had won.

"I... I believe that your latest proposal is going to work," Bryan replied submissively. "We'll have the results here in a few minutes."

"Excellent Doctor. I am indeed pleased." Autocrat watched a monitor where a computer simulation ran an approximation of the brain's electro-chemical reactions. After a few minutes, he pressed a key to pause the display. "Explain why this reaction is slowing down. The simulation suggests that the actual compound's effects would begin to taper off within a few years."

Bryan did his best not to show his anger and fear. It wasn't that they were being abused. The treatment from the Elite to Arachno and him, while not cordial, was at least coolly professional. When he first got here, he thought about ways to sabotage his own experiments, but his first corroboration with Autocrat put an end to that idea. It was clear that Autocrat already knew most of the theories and principles; certainly well enough to see through any deception. The only reason he was here was to provide some expertise in some of the specific details. "Your original proposed change distributes the compound more effectively than E-ph4. But the concentration was so strong, it burned out sections of the brain, leading to synaptic failure. Dialing down the dosage enables the brain to metabolize the compound without harm."

"But weakening the compound enables the brain to metabolize it before it has completed its changes," Autocrat pondered thoughtfully.

"Yes, that's correct. Without testing it, we can't be certain that your proposed compound won't cause behavioral schisms or psychosis."

"Indeed...?" Autocrat smiled and nodded. Mastodon sneered and seized Arachno by the arms and held him fast.

"M-my lord, what are you doing...?" cried Arachno.

"Advancing the cause of science, of course," smiled Autocrat.

"No, don't!" shouted Bryan, as Metatron held him back.

The needle stabbed into Arachno's jugular, and emptying its contents into his bloodstream. His eyes widened and he started to pant and sweat. Bryan watched helplessly as Arachno's hands trembled and his breathing came in coughs. After the injection finished, Mastodon released Arachno and he collapsed to the ground.

"W-why the hell did you do that?" shouted Bryan.

"It's been a long day, Dr. Bryan. Perhaps you would be more comfortable to continue this tomorrow," Autocrat smiled as he gestured to Mastodon, who carried and dragged Bryan and Arachno away. After they were alone, Metatron stepped forward.

"Why do you tolerate such insolence? They should be punished for their lack of respect for your superiority."

"Patience my son," Autocrat smiled. "Like all young people, you must learn patience. I am tolerant because I can afford to be. And because it amuses me."

Metatron looked puzzled. "How can tolerance be amusing? Would it not be more productive to remind them how we hold their lives in our hands?"

"One can accomplish far more with a skillfully-wielded blade, than a clumsy hammer. Men of intellect do not respond to torture, my son. Torture simply hardens their resolve and they tell convincing lies. There is no need to remind them of their own helplessness; they are already well aware of it. By applying courtesy, I allow their own imaginations to fuel their fear. To verbally remind them would undermine that fear by giving substance to the unknown."

Metatron nodded slowly. "I understand father. But why do you even go through this charade of cooperation? Your brilliance is vastly superior to their mediocrity. You do not need these commoners."

Autocrat nodded in acknowledgement. "Arachno was a disappointment, yes. Perhaps he will be able to think of something more innovative now with E-ph4E going through his brain..." he smiled in amusement. "But Dr. Bryan is a leader in the field of human performance enhancement. While his intelligence is certainly no match for mine, his specific expertise in his field is useful to me. And one who is destined to rule the world must be able to evaluate information, regardless of the source."

Metatron bowed. "Your wisdom inspires me, father."

"As well it should." Autocrat lifted up the last tube on the rack of the laboratory centrifuge as it comes to a stop. "And here we go. My latest and finest extension of the original Brightstar formula."

"But Dr. Arachno is clearly not responding well to..."

"Oh, this is not E-ph4E. In that, Dr. Bryan was correct. The human brain is simply not capable of metabolizing such a strong compound evenly without side effects. Such a compound would have to be administered almost at conception, and that is simply too clumsy to plan. This is a finalized version of the original Brightstar compound, with my improvements to ensure proper metabolizing. It will have to be administered in a regimen to compensate for the reduced strength."

"What will you do with this father? Will you use it on yourself?"

"Don't be absurd," Autocrat scolded mildly. "My brilliance is without question. No, this will be used on a selected agent to produce a more useful tool for my operations." He carefully poured the compound into a pharmaceutical bottle, sealed it, and labeled it "E-ph5". "An operation is already being initiated to prepare such an agent."

******

August 15th, 1984.
Maternity Ward, General City Hospital.
Los Angeles, CA.

Los Angeles City Hospital was fairly typical of most urban hospitals -- too many casualties with too few beds. Like most however, where there was money or insurance, space would be made. In the maternity ward, John and Margaret Moore held each other's hands as the nurses worked together to coax the beginning of new life. Their eyes lit up with delight; no matter how many times one saw it, the miracle of new life was still something to behold.

"Congratulations Mr. Moore, it's a baby boy!" smiled the lead nurse.

"H-he's beautiful...!" Margaret exclaimed with exhaustion.

"He's going to be our special little guy," John promised. "Are we still going to...?"

Margaret nodded with happiness. They had come to an agreement on this point. As Margaret cradled her new child for the first time, John left to take care of some necessary paperwork. As he did so, the nursing staff broke up to attend to other duties. One of the nurses headed to the break room and rested. Of course the baby was "beautiful," she thought to herself. Who ever heard of an "ugly" baby? Certainly no parents ever did.

The nurse shook her head; she knew it was the cynicism talking. Working in a hospital was hard work. Too hard. All too often, it fell to the nurses to handle all too many patients with too few resources. With a lowly pay scale, it was no wonder turnover was so high. Other nurses stuck with it, with only the knowledge of their good deeds to sustain their spirits. Others like her turned to other sources of income.

After confirming that she was alone, she dialed a number on the courtesy phone. A pre-dialed sequence ensured the call's anonymity to electronic eavesdropping. As the call connected, a tiny bit of guilt began to prick her conscience. Just what was in that bottle she injected into the fetus? Her only clue was the label, but neither she nor any of the doctors she discreetly asked ever heard of "E-ph5". She had been promised that it wouldn't harm the child; quite the opposite she was told. But the doubts remained.

"Status report, Agent H22?"

The nurse's eyes closed as she nodded. "It is done, my Lord. The parents are John and Margaret Moore. The child's name is Jonathan."

******

August 23rd, 1984.
National Training Center.
Fort Irwin, CA

Major Clark flinched as the explosion of the main gun rocked the landscape. Unlike the other observers, he was unaccustomed to violence. Standing next to him, representatives of the Army's foremost training facility, the NTC, watched through binoculars as a single figure carved a devastating swath through what was once an armored column of vehicles, now reduced to smoking ruin. Fortunately the vehicles were remote-controlled, in a real life situation, the casualties would have been staggering.

"Holy... shit," exclaimed one general. "Damnedest thing I ever saw."

"How does the cerebral readout look Major?"

Clark looked at the remote terminal's screen and watched as a series of brainwave patterns scrawled on a display. "Nominal so far. There was a spike when the last vehicle was destroyed, but nothing more. I'd say we're looking pretty good so far."

The command staff of the NTC nodded and shared a look of congratulations. The unit had been placed on a position that was primed for an ambush. The opposing side, consisting of two M-60 tanks, four M113 APCs, and four LAV 25s were ready to receive the unit. But surprisingly not only did the unit detect and avoid the ambush; it maneuvered into a flank position, catching the column leaning the wrong way. Two APCs and two LAVs tried to counterattack by regaining the high ground, only to be destroyed by artillery fire from the unit's heavy rockets. Adaptability, they all agreed, had far exceeded expectations.

Discussions came to a stop as a flatbed truck brought the unit before them. It was intimidating to be this close; it stood almost twelve foot tall and was made of galvanized armor composed of a top-secret layering of aluminum-magnesium-boron compound, making it diamond-hard and physically stronger than a tank. Unlike most military platforms, it had a bipedal locomotion system that enabled it to bypass almost any obstacles it encountered. It was armed with a 120mm main gun, a 30mm Gattling cannon, a multiple-launch rocket system and a .50 caliber anti-personnel coaxial machine gun. Most importantly was its onboard intelligence system. It had all the experience of one of the Army's finest, bravest soldiers, one Colonel Samuel Leonard.

The Army officers rode back to base in silence. Behind them, the unit, now called "Think Tank," was being loaded and prepared for deployment. US Intelligence had finally located what they believed to be the base of the infamous Royal Elite. Witnesses who were interviewed from the Walter Reed Hospital garage all had identified the Elite from photos and garage security cameras supported their claims. After extensive searches, satellite reconnaissance had spotted the base in Greenland. Notifying the Protectorate, the harsh climate would prove to be the ideal trial by fire for Think Tank.

For himself, Major Clark held his own doubts in quiet reserve. He didn't doubt the hardware on Think Tank; it was easily the class of the world. He was fairly confident that the neurological transfer of Leonard's brain patterns had been a success, giving Think Tank all of Leonard's knowledge, experience and battle savvy. What concerned him was the mission. If indeed the Royal Elite had kidnapped Colonel Bryan, how would the sight of his best friend affect Think Tank's performance?

******

August 30th, 1984.
Royal Elite Arctic Headquarters.
Greenland.

The UN Low Altitude Vehicle hugged the ocean's surface as low as it could dare as it approached the coast of Greenland. Inside, Avatar closed his eyes as he did his best to concentrate on the mission at hand. It wouldn't be easy; the Royal Elite was easily one of the most powerful forces of evil on Earth. To make matters worse, the Protectorate was temporarily short-handed; Outsider and Zodiac were investigating a situation that was building at the edge of the solar system. Hopefully, they would be able to solve matters with the alien ships sighted approaching Sol peacefully. Alien ships, he reminded himself, didn't necessarily mean hostile ones, Orson Wells' greatest radio broadcast notwithstanding. Which left him, along with Paragon, Echelon, and Lioness, to deal with the Elite. Even worse, they would be fighting on their home turf, and the Elite had hostages. A normal man would call it a fool's errand, but Avatar was Earth's greatest bastion of hope and lives were at stake.

To even the odds, the US had sent along this hulking behemoth. Avatar admitted to himself that he was uncomfortable with this "Think Tank." The US military assured him and his team that the unit was able to take orders, adapt to unexpected situations and respond with appropriate force. "Appropriate" in Think Tank's case however meant some nasty looking guns; 30mm and .50 cal they informed him. Hopefully unused if he had anything to say about it.

"LZ in sight," reported the pilot. "Five buildings, two runways. They've got power, but no sign of resistance so far."

"Give us a slow circle of the compound, Colonel," Paragon coldly commanded.

"Roger that."

Avatar, Echelon, and Lioness surveyed the grounds as Paragon gave instructions to the pilots. Although Avatar was the acknowledged field commander of this mission, he deferred to Paragon and his computer-brain on the complex tactical matters at hand.

"Five buildings; the one with the retractable roof must be the hangar," intoned Paragon. "That leaves four. Based on the configuration, I would be willing to eliminate the ones to the north and west as residential. That leaves the smaller outpost to the south and the central compound, their antenna towers and array of parabolic dishes evocative of a communications and command center respectively."

"Have they spotted us yet?" asked Lioness.

"We're not getting pings, ma'am," replied the pilot.

"That does not necessarily mean success, Colonel," reminded Paragon. "Autocrat has access to technologies that may be able to detect this craft, even at nap-of-the-earth flight.

"C'mon, let's crash this turkey stand!" extolled Echelon as he cracked his cybernetic knuckles and powered up his gear.

"We go when I say, Echelon," commanded Avatar. "Remember, they have hostages and they're probably going to be prepared for us."

"So let's get down there!" complained Echelon. "Anything's better than staying up here a sitting duck waiting to get shot down!"

"Paragon?" asked Avatar.

"It is almost impossible for us to approach the base undetected," Paragon noted. "An airborne insertion would seem logical."

"I agree." Avatar turned to the others. "Okay, Echelon and I will go first to clear the way and, if necessary, draw their fire. Paragon, you support Lioness on the second pass."

The team nodded, as Lioness kept her feelings to herself. Here she was, standing next to three of the most powerful men on the planet. What did she have to offer? She was a skillful martial artist. In the short time she had joined since that open membership call issued by Zodiac, she had proven herself numerous times against lesser opponents such as the minions of the Black Mass, the Badass Five, and the Matrons of Mayhem. But she couldn't help but feel a deflating prick of fear on her confidence.

"Stand up!" the Loadmaster shouted. He opened the rear hatch, exposing the base below as Paragon and Echelon got ready to jump.

"Give us twenty minutes to located the hostages before deploying the Think Tank, Colonel," Avatar ordered.

"Five seconds!" The Loadmaster gave off his hand-signals as the ship approached the drop site.

"Roger that. Good luck, sir," saluted the Colonel.

Avatar and Echelon stepped into the frigid Arctic air as they both glided down to the south communication center. As they touched down, Echelon scanned the area for hostile activities as Avatar assumed a neutral stance, closed his eyes and concentrated.

"Protect my back while I consult Marduk's wisdom to find the hostages."

"What, here?" Echelon looked incredulously. "We're in the Arctic!"

"Even here, civilization was once present," Avatar patiently explained. "Eric the Red established this island's first colony in 982AD. In fact, it is still considered a represented member of Denmark's parliament."

"Alright, fine," fumed Echelon. Avatar's know-it-all attitude and his so-called affinity to "the bedrock of civilization" could be a real pain. The least Avatar could do would be to use his powers to warm things up a bit; he was freezing his ass off. As Avatar came out of his trance, Echelon made a note of the roar of the LAV above them completing its second pass. Paragon stepped out with Lioness in his arms. Booster jets fired from his boots as they touched down.

"The hostages seem to be located in the north residential building," Avatar pointed. "I'm also feeling a powerful presence guarding them. Probably Mastodon. Autocrat and Metatron are in the main chamber, and there's a platoon of soldiers in the west residential building and scattered in the main area. Baroness must be phased out of our timeline; I'm afraid I can't detect her so be on guard."

"So what's the plan?" Lioness asked as she shivered.

"Autocrat and Metatron are the most powerful, but fortunately they are away from the hostages at this point," Paragon pointed out in a coldly detached voice. His mind then sifted through the possibilities in an instant. "Avatar and I should engage them to prevent their interference. Meanwhile, Echelon and Lioness should be able to defeat Mastodon."

"Like more than enough," Echelon sneered. "Boss, I want to join you guys on the main team. Autocrat's a hell of a bigger threat than that muscle-bound oaf and you're going to need me there."

"That would compromise the hostages and there's still the Baroness out there; if she shows up, Lioness will need you covering her back," rejected Avatar. "The plan stands, Echelon."

"What's the matter, Echelon?" Lioness sneered. "Saving people's lives not your idea of glory?"

Echelon fumed, but kept silent as the team penetrated the base. Inside, they saw a large opening main chamber with corridors leading north and west. Lioness and Echelon split off, heading down the north corridor, leaving Paragon and Avatar to enter the main chamber. In front of them Autocrat and Metatron were waiting for them along with over fifty armed troops.

"Infidel intruders, father!" shouted Metatron.

"Lesser beings, all of them," Autocrat demeaned. "They cannot defeat us."

"I'm going to give you this chance to surrender before I'm forced to destroy you all!" ordered Avatar. "Don't force a fight you cannot win!"

"Arrogant plebian fools...!" Autocrat fired a powerful blast of cosmic energy, driving Avatar back against the wall, but not doing appreciable damage. Avatar stood up and strode forward in a commanding manner. Autocrat's troops followed their lord, and opened fired with their rifles."

"Protect the master!"

"He must be destroyed!"

Avatar stood defiant as the fusillade of bullets, exploding grenades and shells rained down on him. Behind him, Paragon's force-fields and heavy armor deployed around his body as his arms reconfigured into heavy weapons. This was going to be serious.

"I'm almost disappointed, Autocrat," Avatar boasted. "We were expecting to be in the fight of our lives, but this isn't even exercise!" He nodded to Paragon, who fired a powerful pulse of energy that enveloped the agents' weapons, fusing their firing mechanisms.

"O-our weapons! They do not function!"

"Indeed! Now begone, for this is not a place for bystanders and we have no wish to spill blood this day!" Avatar raised his arms and a powerful wind rose into a tornado, sweeping the agents away.

"W-we cannot stand before him!" exclaimed the agent teams as they clung desperately to any handholds they could find before being blown from the room. "We are gnats before a colossus!"

"Father, allow me!" Metatron tensed. "I will defeat these arrogant commoners and put them in their place!"

Autocrat nodded and powered his own energies up. "Indeed... let this battle be joined!"

In the north corridor, Lioness and Echelon raced down the corridor as the sounds of battle raged behind them. Twice, guards fired rifle rounds at them, only to be easily defeated by Echelon without breaking a stride. Ahead, Lioness saw the corridor open up to an antechamber, with a catwalk and superstructure above. Waiting for them was Mastodon, who lunged at Lioness.

"Commoner swine, you will fall by my hands this day!"

"Whoa, what big hands you have!" Lioness quipped as she parried the blow.

"Admit defeat and I will spare your miserable life to serve the Elite!" Mastodon commanded. "You are no match for my strength!" He kicked only to hit empty air as Lioness jumped over the arc of the attack.

"Down here? Probably not," Lioness admitted as she used Mastodon's shoulders to vault for the catwalk. "So let's see if you can match me up here instead." Once secured, she turned and faced Mastodon and needled with just the right tone of arrogance, "if you're not afraid of heights!"

"Lowly wench, I'll make you eat your boasts!" Mastodon threatened as he headed for the ladder.

Echelon watched with boredom. Well, Lioness had this well in hand, just as he predicted she would, and he would just be a fifth wheel here. Behind him, he could hear the battle's pitch increase. He turned and headed back down the corridor. The real battle would be there, and he wasn't going to miss it.

Lioness cursed as her peripheral vision caught Echelon's departure. Arrogant little punk; he had been causing more problems and grief as of late. His ego seemed to dictate his priorities all too often and was probably the case here, she judged. She turned her mind back to the fight; she'd have a serious talk with Avatar after this was all over.

Mastodon lumbered straight for Lioness as soon as he reached the catwalk. "If you think this catwalk is going to be of any help at all, then you've..." as he reached for her.

"Obviously got the right idea!" Lioness corrected as she jumped off the walk, catching the handlebars and using them as a pivot, swinging and connecting both feet into Mastodon's back.

"Wench, I will punish you for that!" Mastodon threatened. He turned around awkwardly on the narrow catwalk and swung his fist, but missed by a mile as Lioness jumped up onto the support structure, swung up like a gymnast and kicked Mastodon in the back of his head before landing.

"What's the matter, Mastodon? Having trouble getting up to full charge on a narrow catwalk?" She mocked him as he tried to charge. She ducked under the charge, seized one ankle and sent him sprawling on the platform. Keep him angry and not thinking, she thought. "There's more to fighting than strength, you idiot. There's speed, agility," she emphasized as she took another charge by rolling backwards with the momentum and tossing him off the catwalk, " and skill!"

Mastodon fell onto the control panel below, shorting out the force fields of the detention area. Perfect, Lioness thought, right where I wanted him.

"We're free...?" asked Jane Leonard. She wandered out of the cell, but was stopped by Elizabeth Leonard and Colonel Bryan.

"Stay there," Lioness ordered. She jumped off the catwalk and used her own downward momentum to deliver another kick into Mastodon's face, driving him back against the wall. "I'll handle this bruiser first!"

"You will pray for death when I am done with you!" Mastodon bellowed as he reared back and charged.

Lioness steeled herself as Mastodon's charge came. Timing the charge, she jumped to vault over the charging beast, when suddenly, gravity seemed to shift and her form slowed and hung in mid-air. "Oh shit...!" she thought. "Baroness...!" She barely got the thought out just as Mastodon charged right into her now-stationary form, plowing her right into the steel walls.

"Needing a little help?" Baroness smiled with amusement as she flickered into existence, but Mastodon was clearly beyond even noticing her.

"Mock me, will you!" Mastodon raged as he drove his fists into Lioness' chest and abdomen. She coughed blood as ribs cracked, puncturing a lung. As she slid down the wall, she tried to crawl away. "No, you don't!" Mastodon screamed. "Your jumping days are over!" He reached down grabbed both of Lioness' legs and wrenched hard enough to tear muscles, rip tendons and shatter bone. Lioness screamed as she felt both knees explode with agony. Blood began to pool on the ground as Mastodon picked a now limp Lioness and rammed her head into the steel walls again and again. "You... will... stop... mocking... me...!"

Lioness' scream pealed throughout the metal corridors, before being cut off by the repeated pounding. Avatar turned to face north, saw Echelon heading towards them and immediately put things together. "Echelon, you fool! Lioness!" Avatar turned and flew as fast as he could up the north corridor, only to be stopped by an energy tendril from Autocrat and Metatron.

"Not so fast, 'old friend,'" Autocrat threatened as he seized Avatar from behind and began to burn with energies. Behind him, Metatron shimmered, his regal garb and flesh combusting into fiery energy.  Blasts of accelerated particles lanced into Avatar's chest as crackling beams stretched out from the arms of Autocrat's son, causing the Babylonian demi-god to gasp with each concussive attack.

"Avatar?" Paragon turned around and fired at Metatron, whose body and clothing were material once again, and knocked him back against the wall. Avatar shook his head rapidly.

"Forget about me!" Avatar ordered as he struggled with Autocrat. "Save Lioness and the hostages!"

"Acknowledged," Paragon intoned coldly. It was the logical decision. As he flew towards the north corridor, he hoped it wouldn't be a fatal one.

At the north building, the hostages watched helplessly as Mastodon picked up an unconscious and bleeding Lioness and prepared to finish the job he started. "As a member of the upper class of society, I convict you of insulting my honor!" Mastodon reared back his fist and prepared his final blow. "The penalty for this offense is..."

Suddenly, the walls around the building exploded, catching everyone off-guard. The floor trembled as Think Tank stomped into the room and deployed a 30mm Gattling cannon and a .50cal 6-barrel chain gun. "This is an authorized United Nations operation," Think Tank commanded with a metallic voice. "You are ordered to surrender and place your hostage on the deck."

Mastodon tossed Lioness against the wall and charged. "And now they send machines after us! I will smash this robot as easily as I smashed this mere slip of a g -- Uhrk!"

Think Tank cut Mastodon off by seizing him by the neck in mid-leap with a hydraulic grappling hook. "Your actions are a violation of the United Nations' charter against terrorism and diplomatic action. This unit is now authorized to use force," Think Tank intoned metallically as he open fires on Mastodon with its 30mm Gattling cannon. Mastodon screams as multiple depleted-uranium shells smash and explode all over his torso. After several seconds of merciless barrage, Think Tank dropped Mastodon's limp and bleeding form on the ground and turns towards Baroness.

"Oh Christ...!" Baroness turned pale and fearfully vanished into the temporal eddies. Denied a target, Think Tank spun around at the only remaining movement in the room. The weapon system centered and locked onto Elizabeth and Jane Leonard huddling fearfully in the corner of the room. For several seconds that seemed to stretch to infinity, the only sound that can be heard was the fearful breathing of the two ladies. Think Tank's targeting systems blinked with confusion and doubt. Dr. Bryan ran up to the Leonards, placing himself in front of them, even though he knew it would be pointless.

"M-mommy... it's a monster..!" cried Jane.

"Alex, what is it?" Elizabeth asked fearfully but composed.

"Military, I'm sure of it," Dr. Bryan whispered, hoping that was true. "It said something about UN regulations."

Think Tank slowly lowered its weapon arm and stepped back. It looked uncertain and confused. Before it came to any conclusion, Paragon flew into the room, glowing exhaust streaming from the soles of his feet.

"Mastodon is down," Paragon coldly noted into a communicator. "Lioness appears to be severely injured and the hostages are intact."

"You're Paragon?" asked Dr. Bryan. "I'm a doctor, let me see if I help your friend!"

"You are Colonel Alexander Bryan, Chief Medical Researcher for USAMRIID. If you can aid Lioness, we are at your disposal."

Dr. Bryan ran over to Lioness' still form and looked her over with a skillful eye. "We're going to need some medical equipment. Do you have a medical kit?"

Paragon's fingers began to morph into tools. "I will be your medical kit. State what equipment you require."

Back in the main chamber, Avatar and Autocrat sparred as Echelon charged into Metatron. The combatants were closely matched, trading blow for blow. Energies crackled as Autocrat and Metatron tried to coordinate a strike against Avatar, but Metatron found himself unable to disengage from Echelon.

"Told you you'd need me!" Echelon shouted as he punches Metatron across the face.

"You shouldn't be here in the first place!" Avatar angrily replied, still struggling with Autocrat. "Paragon says Lioness's condition is critical!"

"Poor fools," snarled Metatron as he blasted Echelon into the wall. "Your pathetic weakling woman was no match for Mastodon. When he gets here...!"

"Autocrat!" called Baroness, materializing in the middle of the fray. "We're in trouble!"

"You got that right!" Echelon shouted as he took advantage of Baroness' momentary disorientation, and fired a powerful energy blast, impacting Baroness right in the chest, dropping her unconscious next to Autocrat.

"So, you have resorted to dishonorable tactics after all," Autocrat accused Avatar and watched Baroness fall. "Your own hypocrisy is proof of your own inferiority!"

"You speak of honor?" Avatar retaliated. "You take women and children hostage, murder helpless innocent people and you accuse us of dishonor?"

"Inferiors, all of them," Autocrat dismissed. "Not worthy of true equality or consideration!" He turned to Metatron. "We must turn to our backup plan, my son. Go! See to the success of the Royal Elite, my most loyal servant!"

"I live to serve!" Metatron declared, and disengaged from combat as Echelon's attentions turned to Baroness. He flew towards the north corridor.

"Paragon! Incoming!" Avatar warned into his communicator.

"I'll get him!" Echelon declared and flew down the corridor after Metatron.

At the north chamber, Bryan worked feverishly on Lioness as Paragon assisted him. Lioness' breathing was shallow and an improvised electrocardiograph showed a thready heartbeat. Paragon extended several tubes into Lioness, including an endotracheal respirator tube, and IV lines. As Bryan concentrated on his patient, he didn't notice Patrick's approach until he was almost next to him.

"Come to gloat, General?" Bryan asked coldly.

"I've come to help, Colonel. If you'll have me."

Bryan's first reaction was to tell Patrick to go take a flying leap, but he stopped himself. Lioness needed another pair of skilled hands more than he needed his moral vindication. "BP's 50 over 20 and falling. Pulse is thready and respiration is shallow. I've got her on O2, saline, and glucose. But it doesn't look good."

General Patrick watched Bryan's efforts, then his eyes lit up. "Wait Colonel, I've got something. Autocrat was working on ways to extend Brightstar's capabilities into other means of human development. He had already developed serums and compounds that would increase strength, stamina and durability by splicing genetic code from lions and felines."

Bryan gave Patrick an ugly expression. "I will not experiment on this woman! If we give her some experimental serum from a mad scientist, it may kill her!"

Patrick returned a hard look. "If you don't give it to her, you will kill her. You can see her injuries, you know I'm right." His expression turned cold. "Time to make that choice, Dr. Bryan. Time to play God."

Bryan looked around for an alternative. Any alternative. But there wasn't one, and he knew it. And he was wasting time.

"Dr. Bryan, your assessment?" asked Paragon. His expression was cold, but his voice betrayed genuine concern and fear.

Bryan paused as he wrestled with his own morals before coming to a decision. "You'll forgive me for being blunt, but I'm afraid we're under the gun. Your friend's injuries are terminal. There's no medical treatment we have that will save her life. But Autocrat was extending some of my research and has apparently developed some mutagenic compounds that may save her. There's no telling what side effects or consequences they will have. The compound itself may kill her. But we're out of options and there's only one choice. As her only associate available, that choice goes to you."

"I understand, Doctor. Give her the serum. I will assume responsibility for the choice made today."

General Patrick stood up, walked over to a cabinet, pulled out a tube marked "Royal splice #2", and handed it to Dr. Bryan. "Autocrat informed me that he spliced the genetic material from lions. In rats, it increased strength, speed and endurance by nearly 40%."

Dr. Bryan took the serum and injected it into an IV line leading to Lioness' arm. Just as he did so, Metatron flew into the room and seized Dr. Bryan and dumped him unceremoniously next to Elizabeth and Jane. Before any of them could move, Metatron surrounded all three of them with an aura of energy.

"Get back!" Metatron ordered, his own form bathed in brilliant energy, making him look very much like a film negative. "You will all leave now, or you will see these weak commoners die!"

"No!" Paragon shouted. He opened his communicator and spoke, "Avatar, we have a situation here!"

Think Tank armed its weapons and ordered, "You are ordered to surrender and place your hostages on the deck!"

"Disengage! That is an order!" Paragon commanded. As powerful as Think Tank's weapons were, none of them were precise enough to hit Metatron without risking the hostages.

"You had better listen to him, robot!" Metatron sneered. "You and your team have sixty seconds to leave!"

Just then, Echelon charged into the room. Seeing the situation, he pointed at Metatron and powered up. "Put them down Metatron! Or I'll blast you!"

"Are you challenging my resolve? Fools!" Metatron threatened as he powered up his energy cage.

"Echelon, stop!" Avatar ordered from the communicators.

"I've got the shot!" Echelon declared.

"Don't!" Paragon ordered.

Echelon fired right at Metatron's head. The shot hit wide, ricocheting off the bulkhead walls. Metatron released his energy, destabilizing the molecules of air around the hostages. Bryan embraced Elizabeth and Jane as protectively as he could in vain, as all three of them are bathed in a white energy. When the light fades, only their clothes remain. Metatron, no longer awash in energy, laughed.

General Patrick stood in shock, knowing the white light for what it was. Regardless what he felt about Bryan's weaknesses, or the morals he himself compromised, the shock of the deed still stunned him.

"Nooo...!" Heads turned at the shout, and watched with shock as Think Tank abruptly engaged its weapons. First came the chain gun; Metatron staggered back as 3600 rounds of .50 caliber ripped into him, knocking him into the wall. Not letting up, Think Tank locked and fired its 30mm Gattling cannon, while seizing Metatron by the neck, preventing his escape. Despite his force field, Metatron's body began to bleed and shake as hundreds of shells tore into his body.

"Stop it! He's beaten!" Paragon ordered in vain as he watched Think Tank deploy his main gun. Metatron managed to open his eyes one last time as the 120mm cannon locked on and fired. The entire chamber shook as the HEAT round blew Metatron's body apart. Both Avatar and Autocrat arrived into the room and froze at the bloody sight. Autocrat managed to recover first and take action.

"You dare...!" Autocrat blasted Think Tank with his full powered blast, disabling its computer interface, rendering it inert. He rushes over to Metatron, but it's clearly too late.

There was a long moment of silence as the Protectorate and Autocrat both take time to assess the damage.

"It's over Autocrat," Avatar commanded. "I regret the loss of your son, but he brought it on himself with the murder of the hostages."

"You... dare... patronize me this way?" Autocrat seethed. "What you have taken can never be repaid. The crime you have wrought is beyond redemption...!"

"You can tell that to the World Court," Paragon ordered, only to be stopped by a powerful force wall that separated Autocrat from the others.

"Fools...did you think me so unprepared as this?" Autocrat slowly and gently picked up Metatron's bloody, mutilated body and spoke softly. "Mark this day...! Let it be known that there will be a reckoning! You will all pay! All mankind will pay! I will retreat this day, but when I return, there will be no mercy! One day... you will all bow down before me! The blood of your lowly commoners will flow before the streets and your cities... your world... will feel my wrath!" He then flipped a switch on his gauntlet. With a shimmering of energy, he and the rest of the Royal Elite vanished through an interdimensional portal.

Avatar looked around and checks on Lioness. "How does she look Paragon?"

"Her vital signs are weak, but beginning to stabilize. It would appear that Autocrat's derivation of Dr. Bryan's research was successful."

"He's mad, not stupid," Avatar said softly. He then walked over to where the hostages stood. The empty clothing mocked him with their coolness. He picked them up and closed his eyes. In his mind, he could see them through the wisdom of Marduk. A brilliant doctor, with no less than 49 people who owed him their lives, a loving wife, who taught eager young minds in a Virginia elementary school, a young girl, who's potential one could only guess. All of them sacrificed for the sake of some madman's dream. Hardly a fair trade.

"Look who I found!" Echelon called as he carried an unconscious Dr. Arachno in his arms. "Looks like we'll have something to talk about for this mission after all."

Avatar narrowed his eyes at Echelon as he called the LAV for pickup. "Indeed. There will be much to talk about."

******

September 4th, 1984.
National Training Center.
Fort Irwin, CA.

Major Clark and other members of the motor pool looked the unit over carefully. The damage wasn't that severe, but it was critically placed. With the computer circuits cut off from the main AI unit, Think Tank was basically dead weight. Well, it was a pretty simple repair job; the mechanics here estimated that they'd have it operational in a few minutes. What concerned Clark most were the readings he was getting from the cerebral scans. Wild, highly agitated, and chaotic, he had no idea what could have gone wrong so quickly. A simple mistake in communications, really, but one that he would regret for the rest of his soon-to-be-ended life. He hadn't been told any of the mission reports from the Greenland deployment. No one thought that such details were relevant. No one bothered to mention the unfortunate deaths of Dr. Bryan, Elizabeth Leonard and Jane Leonard.

"Ready for power check," called the senior tech sergeant.

"Turning on now." The SP4 turned a set of keys on a control panel, and Think Tank lurched to life again. It spun around and evaluated its surroundings.

"Looking good, Major?" the senior tech sergeant asked expectantly.

Major Clark's face turned pale. "No, it's not. Think Tank is engaging into combat mode. It's detecting hostile targets within the engagement radius!"

"What vector?" the sergeant asked, not yet knowing the danger. "What's it detecting?"

"According to my readouts..." Major Clark's blood ran cold as he turned to face Think Tank as its weapons armed. "The only thing it's detecting...is us!"

Abruptly, Think Tank fired its .50 cal chain gun, killing Major Clark instantly. Spinning around, the combat interface began to lock onto other military personnel, and firing weapons. Screams and explosions erupted from the base as Think Tank engaged its servos and began to make its way out of the body shop.

"Look out, it's loose!"

"Get back, get back!"

Maintenance personnel scattered and ran for their lives. Klaxons were soon activated and armored response was summoned. But by the time it got there, all that was left was the devastation. An empty hole mocked the hostile response team and tracks from the unit headed towards the California coast. Thirty-seven men paid the final price for the communications mix up; a price that would grow in the years to come.

******

September 14th, 1984.
Headquarters of the Protectorate.
Geosynchronous Orbit over North America.

Avatar looked out of the viewing portal pointed to Earth. He tried to go over the mission as best he could in his head, with the results coming out the same every time. He shook his head; the whole thing left him a bitter taste in his mouth.

"So, what's the deal with Echelon?" the Outsider asked as he approached Avatar, an overcast of shadows followign him like a black specter.

"You were at the hearing," Avatar said softly. He didn't feel like reliving it; a three-month suspension wasn't something he wanted to dwell on.

"Why don't you tell it to me in your own words?" the Outsider pressed.

Avatar took a breath and thought it over. He didn't want to trash Echelon's record any more than it already was, but what he did in Greenland was never to be forgotten. Not on his watch. "Echelon let his own desire for glory overshadow the mission. That negligence cost the lives of three innocent people, and nearly killed Lioness. As it is, she's going to be out of action for months."

"Not good," the Outsider warned. "The BEMs didn't seem to take our meetings really well. You not being there seemed to torque them off. Probably a matter of respect for their culture. If we can't fix things up, we're going to need everyone we've got. What'd you find out about the guy who saved her?"

"Dr. Bryan?" Avatar looked down. "I looked him up when we got back to the States. Brilliant doctor, good soldier, good man. Every CO and patient he's ever had sings his praises. As a combat medic and a doctor, he's saved over fifty people, including Lioness. And if he was even half as brilliant a medical researcher his colleagues say, then the world has suffered an enormous loss."

The Outsider kept his opinion to himself, as he knew there was very little he could say. "What about this other guy you rescued?"

"Even more tragic. Dr. Arachno was a biologist who was recently discredited by the academic community. Apparently, Autocrat was trying to experiment on increasing intelligence. This poor devil was one of his test subjects. He's being held in a Washington DC psychiatric ward."

"Doesn't seem fair, does it?" the Outsider mused.

"Which part?" Avatar groused.

"You lost the guy who everyone says was a pillar to the community, then you save the psycho."

"What's your point?"

"You did your best. You saved someone. Maybe it wasn't the person some of us would've liked, but life's like that sometimes. Ask yourself: If you could, would you choose to save Bryan if it meant leaving Arachno to die?"

"That's crazy talk," Avatar dismissed.

"No, that's life. You can't play God."

Avatar scowled. "You're forgetting that I'm a deified human, Outsider."

"The key word is 'human.' Yeah, you're the avatar of Babylonia -- so what? You can't pick and choose whom you're going to save. You and me -- and everyone else that decides to take on this grueling job -- we have to just do our best and let the chips fall where they may."

Avatar nodded. Of course the Outsider was right. "Pretty nihilist, isn't it?" Avatar turned around and headed back to the main hall. Time to get back to more positive things. "How about we say hello to our newest member?" With that, Outsider and Avatar rejoined the rest of the team, along with several UN officials to participate in the swearing in of a young woman. She held her hand upright as she solemnly recited the oath.

"...that I will faithfully execute the laws of the United Nations, to uphold the traditions and honor of the Protectorate and all she represents, and to protect and serve all mankind."

The head official smiled and shook her hand. "Congratulations Dr. Conrad. Welcome to the team."

******

December 15th, 1984.
Chicago Presbyterian Hospital Dept. of Psychiatry.
Chicago, IL.

Dr. Silverman stopped by to check on the patient on his daily rounds, but for this patient, he knew there would be no change. Damnedest thing he ever saw; the patient exhibited all the signs of catatonic insanity, but unlike most, she always seemed awake. Her eyes remained opened and she whispered all manner of random nonsense. Despite this, brain scans revealed an unprecedented amount of activity; clearly something was going on in that head of hers. The problem was no one else had the slightest idea what was going on.

Even more frustrating was how she came here. Just showed up one day with papers declaring her to be committed for her own health. It looked like a routine transfer from another facility, but no one from the listed facility would confirm ever meeting this girl. It wasn't until four months later before anyone even realized she was pregnant. A total blank slate, she had no known relatives, no means of identification, and they certainly weren't able to get any useful information from the girl herself. The only clue they were given was a single name: "Clancy".

Silverman shook his head and walked to another wing of the hospital. Here, the nurses were caring for Clancy's baby girl. At least the baby was born healthy, Silverman reflected. Unfortunately for her, her mother was clearly not capable for caring for her. So once she was old enough, paperwork was already prepared to transfer her to the Lockwood Orphanage downtown. Silverman briefly wondered what kind of life she would lead; Lockwood wasn't the nicest of places, but there wasn't any other real choice. Well, he couldn't save everyone. With that decided, he returned to his duties. Angelina Clancy would have to find her own destiny.

******

February 29th, 1996.
Greenville Grande Theater.
Los Angeles, CA

The Grande was an anachronism; a throwback to the heyday of Hollywood before the multiplexes took over the neighborhood movie theaters. The lobby was old-fashioned and glitzy with lights, but the inside was refurbished as best as money could buy. It only had two screens and the management catered to a more mature crowd. Unlike most theaters where seats were lined up in fixed rows, the auditorium was open with freely sprawled chairs and tables. Before the feature, waiters would come and take orders for food; not just junk, but actual real food such as chicken, sandwiches, salads and desserts.

John and Margaret emerged from the theater as the credits rolled with young Jonathan running right behind them. It had been a wonderful night; his father had purchased his favorite pizza and coke and the movie was exciting! His father explained that the movie was a classic; "The Mark of Zorro" starring Tyrone Power. Made in the heyday of Hollywood before special effects took over, the movie proved that dazzling skill could make up for digital effects any day. Jonathan's eyes lit up as the larger-than-life hero leaped from the screen, smiling his heroic smile just for Jonathan. A few years from now, Jonathan knew that his little sister Nancy would be joining them. But she was still too young to bring to a movie, so she was at home with a baby-sitter. For now, this night was for him and him alone. It was a night he would never forget, in more ways than one.

"I wanna be Zorro one day!" Jonathan announced.

John chuckled as the family headed to their car. "Maybe you will be son. With all the superheroes crawling out of the woodwork, I guess someone running around with a sword wouldn't be so strange."

"Don't give him such ideas," Margaret protested. "Those superheroes and villains are dangerous!"

"Aw, come on mom, they're not so bad. I'm going to fight against tyrants and protect the innocent people! Just like...!"

Abruptly, the family comes to a stop as a dark figure stepped from the shadows, and brandished a gun. He spoke with a voice that was like broken glass. "Not...another...word!"

The alleyway became quiet as the Moore family froze in disbelief. The robber advanced and seized Margaret's pearl necklace and ordered, "I'll take those pearls bitch!"

"Take your hands off her!" John ordered as he reached for the robber's gun hand.

"You stupid bastard!" the robber threatened as he gun-whipped John across the face and fired on his sprawled form. The shot exploded, shattering the silence of the night.

"N-no...!" Jonathan cried as he watched his father drop limp onto the ground.

"John!" Margaret cried.

"Bitch!" the robber snarled and fired again, dropping Margaret as the pearls broke away and dropped onto the ground one by one.

"Mom!" Jonathan watched in horror as his mother collapsed next to his father. He shook his head helplessly as the tears begin to flow.

"Stop crying, damn it!" snarled the robber. "I hate it! I hate it when little punks cry!" With that, he punctuated his feelings by firing again. The shot's echo was still ringing when he froze with shock at the sight of the bullet frozen in mid-air.

Jonathan's tear-filled eyes began to glow with energy as he slowly got to his feet. His expression of rage knotted his face as the blood of his parents trickled off his hands. "And... I... hate... you...!"

Energy exploded from Jonathan's eyes and filled the robber's head. The robber screamed and clutched his head to try in vain to prevent it from imploding. A second later, the robber's body stiffened and he dropped limp and silent onto the ground. Jonathan barely noticed as he clutched the bodies of his parents on the ground. "Mom... Dad...!"

"Your parents can no longer help you, young Jonathan." Autocrat stepped out from the shadows over the dead smoking body of the robber and offered his hand. "But I can..."

******

May 1st, 2000.
10 miles above Purgatory Prime.
Anchorage, AK.

Beyond the glacial Inside Passage, amidst the crystalline thoroughfare at Icy Strait beheld another world. There, mountains crowned with snow rose from the shoreline, biting into the sky like jagged teeth.  Megalithic icicles hung over remote basins, moaning, creaking, until the sheer weight of one exceeded nature's grip and a massive chunk of ice the size of a man-made fortress broke away and crashed into the cold, unforgiving sea.

Autocrat smiled as his mobile headquarters floated over the Gulf of Alaska. Freezing winds threatened to bond a thin layer of ice onto the skin of the hull, but a carefully calibrated heater prevented it. It did add some risk that IR sensors would detect the base, but the risk of ice jeopardizing the radar stealth shape configuration was higher.

He had looked forward to this day. Since the death of Metatron, Autocrat vowed that the world would tremble with his revenge. Below was the first step; he would make a clarion call to the United States and show that even their vaunted nation was not beyond his reach. They were so proud, so sure of their power. This would surely show them their true place in the world. Behind him, the door slid open and his servant stepped forward. Prepared and trained for this day, it would be Harbringer's trial by fire.

"Are you prepared to serve your lord?

Harbringer bit off his angry reply. He had to; Nancy's life depended on his good behavior. "Yes, my lord Autocrat."

Autocrat activated a large viewing monitor. An island came into view, revealing a fortified building. Known throughout the world, it was considered the single most secure facility in existence designed to hold metahumans. Manned by the Warders, there had never been a successful escape in its existence. The only assault attempted by an outside force was defeated nearly ten years ago. Over the years, it had built a reputation that was respected by superheroes everywhere and feared throughout the underworld. It was going to be a great thing indeed to see this reputation go down in flames.

"You are to break into the facility and free a small group of prisoners. The guardians of this facility are to be... punished."

"You're asking me to break into Purgatory Prime?"

"No, I require it," Autocrat corrected. "And do not question my authority. Or do you wish to compromise your sister's... virtue?"

Harbringer lowered his head slowly and nodded. "I understand completely. I'll deliver the goods personally."

"Excellent; then I won't keep you from your duties," Autocrat's replied, his glowing eyes shimmering with delight. He turned around and left the room, leaving Harbringer alone with his thoughts.

Harbringer waited for the door to close then slowly gripped the back of the chair until his arms shook. "Oh, I'll deliver the goods alright," he thought to himself. "And the price will be more than you will ever know. I'll use these powers you've given me to make myself master of all who live... and see you burn in Hell if it's the last thing I ever do..."



Be sure to read about Harbringer's plot for revenge in Escape... And check out Angelina Clancy's first exploits as Mindshadow in Leaving on a Jet Plane.

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