Twixt and Tween
by Richard Stump and Brad Patten


CONDUIT:

I sigh, deep and long. After an exciting trip to the bottom of the world, not to mention a major change in purpose, I have returned to face the same old grind. A previous contract offer has come through while I was out and now well, now here I sit, bored out of my mind.

The money's good, better than the duty deserves. And the prospect of a full-time consultation retainer with Powerdyne is mouth-wateringly tempting. With money like that flowing in, I really could leave everything in Dana's capable hands and spend some time, er, saving the world.

The melodrama in my own head makes me smile a little. Soap opera, here I come!

The main Powerdyne facility I have first assayed is stunningly tight in security. I mean, the DoE reactor in Tennessee was a cakewalk compared to this. Triple-redundancy, overlapping fields, multiple human cutouts, encrypted cabling, dummy security systems, random guard patrols with dogs. And unspliceable fibre cables on core systems.

Now, that's what I call security.

If I ever wanted to get into that place and get out alive I'd need a diversion like the one at the lab in Poland -- an armed attack. And my assessment shows that.

Max Powers is impressed that I have even found all of the security measures. Apparently the two previous potential contractors failed that test. So here I am on Test #2, assessing the security of a convoy.

I pretend to be another relief driver in one of the dummy trucks, watching the other drivers and assessing how they do business. I already have a suggestion or three, all really minor. But the boredom! The Cocteau Twins are playing in one ear (security regulations forbid earphones or earplugs in both ears -- smart, very smart) and I never get tired of rereading The Dancing Wu Li Masters, but there's only a chapter left.

The main driver leans back and says, "Fuel stop in five minutes."

Like everything else, the refueling stops are tight. Powerdyne simply has leased fuel stations and only Powerdyne staff run the facilities while the convoys run through.

I stash my gear in my pack and slip out of the sleeping cab of the big Freightliner, crouching in the jump seat between the two other drivers in the front. Ahead, I can see the fuel stop nearly at the top of a pass in the mountains.

Good, I've kind of got the munchies.

******

TWEEN:

I've found a source of fissionables, not that I want them for the radiation, but more for the weight. This, however, is not going to be easy. With only three days of power left before the
interdimensional bubble fails and dumps my work area into normal space, I need this as soon as I can. It seems Powerdyne is making a shipment from a facility in New York State to Nevada for containment. It was sheer luck that I found the memo. Of course, it could be a trap. But what choice do I have?

I contacted IB2Tap for help on finding an emergency storage area, in case I'm not able to get
the spent fuel rods. If it's a trap, I need an alternative.

So much to do and so little time. The clock's ticking.

I found the site the rods will be shipped from; Wedge is now watching them. There's some seriously sophisticated security there, more than I would expect at a nuclear facility. There are way too many guards around. Even if I did transport in, there's no guarantee that I could get any fuel rods. I also need time, to break the rods out of the concrete casings. There's too much weight for a transport otherwise. This is not going to be easy.

It's been ten hours, IB2Tap has setup a location. He wants to meet with me -- no idea why. I've got more important issues to deal with at the moment.

The trucks are leaving, it will be an hour or so before I can try. I need them to be away from any populated areas. I see three rigs and several all-terrain vehicles. There isn't any time to plan, I'll have to make it up as I go along. My heart's racing. I've never done anything like this before. It's fun and scary at the same time.

Wedge follows the rigs. Well, following isn't quite accurate, as he's watching them from a location about two hundred feet above the road. He has to make adjustments with the gateways every time they move out of range. It's like playing leapfrog, with both active gates near the same location. But it's very dangerous for the gates to be so close, since they could merge and cut the entire bubble off from real space.

But like I said already, what choice do I have? I need the material. Once I have a good source of power, I'll have to work on getting more fissionables. Maybe I could buy some nukes off the Russians. Scary thought, really. And that will take time and money, two commodities I'm in very short supply of at the moment.

I wait for my wife to go off to work, and the kids are already gone for school. It's time, Wedge is ready, I'm ready -- this isn't going to be easy.

The transport trucks are on a flat expanse in the upper mountains. The road around is quiet. No idea on how I'm going to stop one of them, as they're going a good seventy-five miles an hour. Something was up; they were pulling into a small service station. It looks like a very professional and a well thought out way to refuel.

It's near noon, and time's running out. It has to be now while the trucks are stopped. One truck is filled with computer equipment. Hmm, not a bad decoy. But another truck appears to be
the right target. Their refueling is almost complete. Yes, it's now or never.

I have Wedge activate the device and, like that, I'm shunted into the air over the fuel station. Below me and to the left is the tractor-trailer. It's white, like most of the other trucks on the road, save for the fact that its trailer doors display the radioactive and bio-hazardous materials symbols. The guards are armed, standing by watching the road.

I take a breath, psych myself -- and jump into action!

I fly over to the first truck, hoping no one sees me. With only one way to really get in without being seen, I punch into the top of the containment trailer. It rang out like an old school bell, and I barely put a dent in it. This isn't good. The trailer's harder that I anticipated. Fine -- Plan B it is.

I drop down and pull the combination lock. I feel it give and the metal snaps after some serious effort. Funny, I think I pulled something. I start to open the container when the guard shouts.

It looks like things just got much harder.

******

CONDUIT:

The trucks pull into the station very smoothly and the refueling goes as professionally as a
military operation. It feels good to walk a bit after--

What's that?

I think I hear something from the trailer in front. Whatever it is, it songs like a gong. Good excuse to walk up there, I suppose. George shouts something, and it doesn't sound like he's yelling at one of the guards, so I check out what's up. As I step around the front of the rig I was in, I realize two things very quickly: first, this isn't a drill and, second, I'm in a bad spot.

Someone's standing at the rear of the trailer with the heavy lock crumpled in his hand. The guy looks odd, like he's wearing a black snake-skinned bodysuit, but even that doesn't explain his exaggerated, angular muscularity and his glowing eyes. Over the strange guy's shoulder, I see George trying to aim. I realize I'm too close and George is afraid of hitting me. And if I use my gun and miss, George or one of the others is dead.

Ah, well, I say to myself. At least he's looking away from me.

George and the guards do a good job of keeping our wierd, alien-looking visitor's attention, so I move up to grapple him. But when the guy gestures at George, and a billowing green power begins to flow from his one arm, I realize that my cautiousness might get George barbecued. So I throw finesse out the window and wind up to punch the guy in the back of the head.

Bad. Bad. Bad. I may as well have hollared "Bonzai!" as the effect would've been the same.

Before I can even hit him, he spins around to face me. And before I know it, a flash of green energy slams me on my back and I'm momentarily staring at my eyelids.

The energy feels electrical, and its rush of power convinces me that my unwanted guest is a definite meta of sorts. I can feel his power flow through me and its real hard to lay still and pretend to be stunned. Like always, the absorbed force overrides the pain and makes me want to grin; I feel like a V8 revving with nitrous. I'm able to play stunned long enough for the intruder to turn his lambent green eyes back towards the guards.

******

TWEEN:

So far the guard hasn't fired, perhaps it's because he might shoot at another guard. I need to keep them back once I start breaking open the concrete. I saw the pallets in the trailer. The closest one is all I need, and then I'll I break the rods out.

The guard in front of me advances. I need him back. The nanites that make up my bio-synthetic body power up the static charge for me. I'm just about to fire a warning shot, but I hear a rustling of gravel behind me, and so I turn to confront whoever it is trying to blindside me. I guess I'm a little jumpy, as I zap my attacking guard. He's not dead, thank goodness. I can see he's breathing.

I turn back to the truck. The nanites generate enough thrust underneath me, making it easy to ascend into the back of the trailer. I begin pulling the steel cable holding the first pallet, and my nano-enhanced strength snaps it in a matter of tugs. There's another cable to break before I can start on the concrete blocks. I need to work quickly, the other guards are coming. Hopefully they take the hint and stay back. I only need a minute or so and I can have them transported through the gate. I tell Wedge to move the gate closer.

Maybe this won't be as difficult as I imagined. I break the second cable and start to shift the first block. It's heavy, but my heightened physiology has accomodated me for such burdens. I smash the block against the pallet and its concrete case barely cracks.

Okay, this is going to take more than I thought.

******

CONDUIT:

The bastard flies!

He just floats into the trailer smooth as silk. I carefully get to my feet and start toward the now-open trailer, waving the other guards back as I go. Confused, they obey and move to set up a perimeter around the transport truck.

Luckily this guy's making enough noise for me to slip onto the tailgate of the trailer. I even manage to shield most of my body with one of the doors. The intruder seems frustrated by the reinforced tungsten-steel concrete pallets.

I yell, my voice echoing off the trailer walls, "Give it up, buddy! We've already got a team of
Draughtsmen and attack helicopters on the way! There's no way you'll get out of here!"

I hope I sound believable because backup is the cops, and I know they're twenty minutes away from this hole in the wall. Trying to slow him down a bit more, I hold up my hand, now glowing green just like his, and wave it at him in a flaunting manner.

"Oh yeah, and thanks for the gift."

******

TWEEN:

So much for that guard being down for the count. Worse yet, he has the glow of my bio-static charge about him. What the hell is he? A meta no doubt. Huh? Something about helicopters and Draughtsmen? Damn it! I need to work faster. I turn the cracked concrete piling and toss it through the open door. It lands just in front of the other truck.

I haven't talked with the nano-coating active, so hearing my augmented voice is quite strange.

"Stay out of my way. I really don't want to hurt anyone."

I really don't think they're going to listen, not if they want to keep their jobs. If what he's
saying is true, my time is extremely limited. I grab the base of the pallet and pull. I can feel my muscles burn as I lift and push it out the back of the truck. I still need to get the rods out of
the cement, but hopefully this would cause the guards to back off.

Wedge has moved the gateway -- it's just above the truck now. I can't see it, but Wedge says it's there. The pile of concrete blocks are in a crumbled mess, and I don't know where that guy I zapped has gone. It's time to start breaking the blocks, so to speak.

******

CONDUIT:

The bastard's faster and stronger than I first thought, too. I barely dodge the massive block of cement as it whistles through the mangled doors. Flat on my back and almost under the trailer doesn't seem like the best place to develop a new plan, but shit happens sometimes.

And then fortune smiles.

The floor of the trailer, now above me, buckles out in an oval. Then floor buckles again and again, all in the same shape and heading for the rear of the trailer. I grin as realization hits me. Sweet, I think. This guy's moving a lot of weight with a small footprint.

Rolling into a crouch, I reach down and tap into my stolen power. I cut a narrow section of the floor as it begins to buckle under the hefty mass that creates it. The shriek of the small thunderbolt almost covers the clamor of tortured metal and then the intruder's leg, weighed down with the massive concrete pallet, tears through the weakened, red-hot floor of the trailer. The pallet drops to the bed as he bobbles, causing one of the tires to explode and the vehicle to rock wildly on its frame. The crackle of gunshots are almost quiet to my stunned ears as the guards outside, no longer blocked by the pallet, open fire. I carefully aim again, trying to jolt this guy's leg with his own juice.

But he vanishes. He doesn't even withdraw his leg from the hole. He just vanishes!

Damn, this guy's annoying.

I jump up and look inside. Yup, no intruder. Great, not only can this guy fly -- he can teleport too.

"Hey!" I yell. "He's flown away or something! Make sure HQ knows we're under attack!"

The Powerdyne employees that run the fuel station duck back in and the guards run up. One of them, the primary driver from his own rig, looks really worried as approaches. What's this guy's name? Mike, it's Mike.

"Hey, Mike! Get the rigs ready to move. We'll block the entrance to this one with another if we have to."

"Uh, sure, Jerry. Uh, you okay, man?"

In the brief moment before I remember that I have a Powerdyne-issued cover I.D., I realize that a portion of my clothing has scorched away and my hands are still glowing a bit from the remnants of power still lurking about in my spine somewhere.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. My vest took most of the blast. Although I feel funny and I seem to be glowing a bit."

"Uh, you might want to see a doctor, man."

"As soon as we get this st -- uhf!"

I have the briefest of moments to wonder if one of the rigs hit me while I watch the now-tumbling world go black.

******

TWEEN:

I feel the floor give way just as the blocks tumbled out. The small hole is enough to be an annoyance. Normally I wouldn't bother, but this guy is getting annoying.

I did a quick calculation. The mass of one of the cement blocks is too heavy for the transport device. I try to pull myself out of the hole when several shots ring out. They don't penetrate the
nano-coating, but they still hurt like hell. Two other guards fire at me. I need a moment to regroup.

"Wedge, move the gateway a bit," I intone.

The device glows for a second or two and then Wedge says, "Gateway has shifted 200 feet. The guards are slightly confused at your disappearance. I suggest using something to break the cement."

"Don't tell me what to do," I moan. "I have it under control. Just be ready to stack the rods."

I know I shouldn't snap at Wedge, he's nervous as it is. I activate the device again and rematerialize behind the fuel station. I float up and over. They seem to be staring at the back
of the truck and keeping their distance from the fallen concrete.

I see the guy again and he's giving orders. His back's to me, but I see the tinge of my bio-static on his hands and he seems to be trying to keep it hidden from the other guards. I wish I had more time, but I need the rods. I'm not going to let some wannabe security guard cheat me out of the rods now.

Waiting for an opening, I dive down on him and bodycheck him, sending him flying over the blocks and out of my way. Maybe he'll stay down now. I pick up the closest block. The guards are just now realizing that something isn't right.

I throw the first block into the air over the pile. It comes down and splits open. Finally -- a rod! I pull it free and toss it into the dirt like a lawn dart. I try and pull another one out, but it seems
stuck.

******

CONDUIT:

The impact with the ground is a blessing compared to whatever slammed me in the back. I mean, the blindsided hit actually hurt. I even think I felt a disk slip as my wind rushes out of me. But the relatively gentle impact with the earth is completely absorbed, boosting me back to consciousness. Breathing deeply feels good for a moment, and then I look for the cause of my pain.

The meta's ripping fuel rods out of the containment pallets, and the Powerdyne guards are scattering like roaches as the highly radioactive bars are being exposed. And I don't blame them. That stuff's lethal. Well, to most people. I should be okay.

The intruder seems to be having a really tough time getting some of the rods free. Rolling over, I start carefully crawling to him. By the time I'm close enough, the shadowy thief has collected about six rods. He also seems to be, uh, muttering to himself? No matter. Loony or not, he's
close enough and the guards are all out of sight. Gathering my legs beneath me, I dig down to where I store my borrowed strength and leap through the air straight at the bastard.

I hear a loud grunt from him as my shoulder slams into his ribs. I watch the meta fly head-over-heels, and it's not from his own power.  I palm a hunk of concrete to hurl at him, but he vanishes again.

Bastard!

Hold on. Time to assess my situation. Here I am, with sixty pounds of concrete in one hand, green power flowing from the other. The part of my clothes that isn't singed from electricity is threadbare from my rough-and-tumble with the Flying Reptilian Wonder. And a bunch of guys have already seen me zapped and pummeled and thrown about. And they know my face if not my real name.

Fuck all! I've already done a lot more than "assess security." I've earned my damn fee and a bonus.

I drop the concrete and decide to play dead. As I lay there, the intruder swoops out of the sky
again, grabs the fuel rods, and vanishes. Once a minute or two has gone by, and I'm sure the intruder is gone, I release the borrowed power in order to lose the funky green glow about me.

By the time the guards reappear, my strength and vitality have faded to the point that I hurt all over. Without the temporary boost, I feel the bruises, burns, and aches that my powers didn't completely absorb. From experience I know I'll be better soon, but I'll still go through the wringer.

I'm moaning for real as much for effect when Mike comes up.

"Jerry? You okay?"

"Mike, Mike. Help me up."

I struggle to my feet, playing it for effect, then step off on my own.

"I'm okay, I'm okay." I grin weakly at the guard. "Guy must not want a murder charge. He grabbed me and threw instead of hit. Otherwise I'd be dead."

"Take it easy, Jerry. We'll call an ambulance."

"I'm just beat up, Mike. I've been beat up before. I'll be okay."

"They got a spare truck on its way. We'll be leaving in the morning with more guards."

"Good. I'll rest tonight and be ready to drive tomorrow."

I wave away Mike's protests as I limp toward the trucks.

******

TWEEN:

Whoever that guy is, he has to be hurting. After all that punishment, the guard still got up and walked away. Maybe it's time to go through the Powerdyne personnel files.

The rods are off to the side in a pool of water, just in case. I'll take IB2Tap up on his offer and use the warehouse to replace the power cells.

Just as the Powerdyne truck is about to leave, an idea comes to me. I decide to replicate a small gold coin with "Entre nous" engraved on one side, and "Bon voyage" on the other. The coin must weigh about four ounces. Just before the truck pulls away, I have Wedge drop the coin.

As the guy rests in the back, the gold coin clatters beside him and the truck pulls away.
 

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