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High Price
Robert J. Mendenhall

I never tired of watching the two of them in action; the way they soared though the air, rescued people from burning space-scrapers, vaporized alien invaders with their bio-blasts. How many times had they saved us? Not just from extraterrestrial threats, but from ourselves. I can’t even imagine what the world was like before Gale Force and Major Storm came into our lives. Hell, they were here before I was born. I can’t conceive of what life would be like without them. But I’ll have to.

The entire world will have to.

I flipped through the sat-channels on my wall viewer, and each news show I stopped at aired holo-footage of the pair. For some reason, the camera angles more often focused on Force rather than Storm, even though he was usually the spokesman of the duo. Perhaps it was the fine way Force filled out the ribbed, leather uniform she wore. The way her golden hair cascaded from her head, over her shoulders and down her firm back. Maybe it was her sharply violet eyes or the invitation of her glistening lips.

Not that Storm wasn’t a vision himself. Tall, broad-shouldered, and square-jawed. Blue-eyes. Hair the color of fresh crude oil. His uniform strained against his immense chest and potent arms.

They wore complimentary uniforms, signifying their affiliation with each other. Cerulean blue leather, ribbed in places, smooth in others. No pockets. Up-turned collars. Black leather gloves and boots. Narrow belts that served no apparent purpose other than to display polished sapphire buckles, ovoid in shape and etched with some strange mandala. Force wore her uniform unzipped just enough to expose her cleavage, though occasionally while in battle or during interviews, the zipper migrated further south. Storm’s zipper placement was only a few inches below his throat, just enough to expose a tuft of ebony chest hair. They never seemed to age. They had been on the scene for over sixty years and they appeared no different than when they debuted, lending to speculation they were either immortal or androids. They didn’t wear masks or capes, as many of their non-powered costumed imitators did. I often wondered how they protected their true identities.

That is, until I inadvertently discovered who they really were and how they generated their incredible power.

I waved my hand over the hovering remote-orb, and the wall screen went blank, plunging my modest sub-orbital apartment into semi-darkness. I reclined and the mem-chair molded to my form. I closed my eyes.

They had done so much good for the world. They never worried about the vigilante laws, since they normally didn’t work street crime and never appeared in criminal court. The plethora of costumed vigilante teams and leagues did that. Force and Storm tackled the big jobs. The high-profile situations that demanded their raw power. They were the big guns in the super-hero game.

That’s not to say they didn’t make it down to the common man from time to time. I think I was most proud of them when I happen to see them foil a simple mugging one night.

I was heading home from my research job at the university last June, walking briskly to catch the next shuttle out of the city. If I missed it, it would be an hour before the next one left the station and I didn’t want to wait that long in this neighborhood after dark. I had just glanced at my watch when I heard a muffled cry from a gangway I just passed. I back-tracked and stopped at the narrow walkway between two crumbling brick and mortar buildings. Listening.

Another cry, this one more garbled than the last.

Suddenly, I was cold in the summer night air. Trembling. Anxious. I wanted to turn away and pick up my pace. I could make that shuttle if I just picked up my pace. It was probably just a couple of lovers anyway.

But I didn’t do that. Almost as if my body had a mind of its own, I entered the gangway. I crept forward slowly, sideways, with my back against one of the buildings. The gangway emptied into a dark alley that stank of old brick and foul garbage.

“P-please, don’t.” It was a young woman’s choked-off voice.

I lowered my instrument case to the pavement, held my breath, and eased my head around the corner. The kid pinning the young woman to the grimy wall couldn’t have been more than sixteen. His tangle of hair was greasy. His bulky faux-jeans sagged on his hips exposing smudged under pants. Chains dangled from the epaulets of his ragged, sleeveless jacket. Skinny arms boasted pack tats and I could see blotches and track marks near the hollow of the elbow he held against the woman’s throat.

“Just gimme the satch and I’m not gonna hurt ya,” the kid croaked in broken, street English.

The woman gripped the satchel tighter. Was a smart-tab and deb-card worth getting hurt, maybe killed?

I swallowed. I had to do something. But, shit. I was only a theoretical climatologist. I wasn’t a cop. I couldn’t fight worth shit. The last time I wrestled with someone was in high school gym class twenty years ago. But… I had to help her. And now. Maybe I could spook him into letting her go.

I tensed and, fighting my persistent flight response, I inched forward.

A flash of light from above froze me in my tracks. I heard a whoosh of displaced air and a thump. Then another. A muffled wail and a crash of something pliable against metal. I peered around the corner and my life changed.

The kid was sprawled awkwardly atop a dumpster, unconscious. The woman stood unharmed, her satchel in her hands, awe on her face.

Gale Force and Major Storm stood majestic in the filthy space. They seemed to glow from within, bathing the darkness with their azure goodness.

My heart must have stopped beating because I felt it high in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. And I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Okay, off her. I vaguely recall the young woman embracing Storm. I kind of remember her offering thanks and pledging gratitude. I sort of recollect Storm’s obligatory ‘just doing our job’ response.

Mostly, though, I remember her. Gale Force. She stood erect, yet elegant, with hands on hips. Her hair whipped lazily even though there wasn’t a hint of wind. Her eyelids draped those compelling, violet eyes and opened again in a slow-motion blink. Her lips closed then parted in a gentle smile that washed over me like warm water. I remember wishing her uniform zipper had been closer to her belt.

She turned her head slowly in my direction and I jerked back behind the cover of the corner. A second later, I heard the whoosh of their take-off and the receding footfalls of the woman running from the alley.

I don’t know how long I remained plastered against the brick. Could have been seconds. Might have been minutes. Eventually, my attention was drawn back to reality by a soft, rhythmic beeping. I looked around, still awash from her presence. Beeping. Beeping.

I snapped back. Something had triggered one of the atmospheric sensors in my instrument case. I knelt, laid the case on its side, and flipped open the latches. I had several pieces of sensor equipment in the case, pieces I routinely took home with me. Each was cushioned in sheets of foam wrap. I dug through the case until I found the activated instrument, but no sooner had I unwrapped it, then it stopped beeping. I toggled the KT-71 refresh key but whatever it had registered was no longer in the vicinity. I keyed in a series of short-cut commands and the unit’s digital readout displayed the information it had recorded in a string of alpha-numeric characters.

I sat back on my heels in astonishment. The energy signature the KT-71 registered had a biological component. It wasn’t neural or kinetic. Not organic, per se. Or anything I had seen generated from a human body, for that matter. I saw traces of a magnetic resonance, but that was all the KT-71 could identify.

Could this mysterious energy signature be connected to Force and Storm? More importantly, to Force?

I jostled around the inside of the instrument case until my hands wrapped around a sensor stylus. I pulled it from the case and paired it to the KT-71. In a heartbeat I was up and in the alley scanning where they had landed, where they had stood, where they had….

I pivoted to the dumpster. The kid was still atop it, lying in a heap of arms and legs. I shuffled forward, my sensor stylus ahead of me. Nothing. Like the rest of the alley, no readings. No sign of any biological—

Beep.

It was a fleeting hit. Weak and fading. But the signature matched.

The kid groaned and toppled off the dumpster. I pivoted and was back in the gangway before he was on his feet. I didn’t waste time de-pairing the stylus, or re-wrapping the KT-71. I dropped them both into the case, flipped the latches, and dragged the case by the shoulder strap as I sprinted for the street.

I missed the shuttle.

The next day, back in my hexagonal work-cell at the university climatology lab, I ran the readings though my partition of the primary server. Despite its inexhaustible database, it could not identify the energy other than it was biological in nature. What the KT-71 had recorded was insufficient for further analysis.

I spent the next several days in a distracted funk, barely able to focus on my assigned research. At work, I clicked through virtual-mails without even enlarging them. Whenever the news came on, invariably there was a report about Force and Storm. My attention shifted from whatever I was absently doing to the pop-up aperture on my holo-screen. Only rarely did I actually listen to the report. My eyes, my imagination, anchored onto her image, blotting out all else. At home, the dirty dishes piled up. The laundry hamper overflowed. The bills were paid late.

I was obsessed with her. I recognized that. I was okay with that.

I reviewed the KT-71 data over and over. It never changed.

In August, Force and Storm saved the entire continent of Australia from a nuclear meltdown that would have dwarfed the twenty-first century Japan disaster. All the global networks covered their heroic, fist-first dive into the maw of nuclear hell.

In September, they rescued a crippled passenger shuttle en route to the Unified Nations Space Station after the transport was struck by what was believed to have been a meteorite. It turned out to be a discarded nut no bigger than a nickel. Space junk.

In October, they prevented the Hawaiian island of Lanai from sinking into the ocean.

In November, they repelled yet another alien attack. (Where were they all coming from?)

In December, I stumbled upon their secret.

I was in New York because I knew they would be there, receiving yet another award from a grateful planet. I couldn’t get anywhere near the Unified Nations complex because of the massive security net, but I was able to get parking coordinates for my apartment at a low altitude condo-park over Brooklyn Sector, complete with free continental breakfast and shuttle service to the surface.

Realistically, there was no need for me to physically be there, because the news coverage would provide a better view of them on my holo-viewer than I could ever hope to have in person. Still, the thought of being in proximity to her, even obliquely, made my chest warm.

The night before the awards ceremony, I wandered into a pub in Manhattan Sector. I don’t remember the name of the place, only that it had real beer and served some crunchy-salty things in bottomless bowls. The music was low key, a subtle cross between electronica and chakra-jazz. The clientele seemed sophisticated; I felt almost out of place. The third beer was leading into my fourth when the KT-71 beeped.

Ever since that night in the alley, I kept the sensor unit with me wherever I went. I carried it in a small side satchel that looked like a common man-purse. It was calibrated to react only to the bio-energy signature it had detected that night. Until now, it had never gone off.

I set the mug down so hard, I spilled most of the beer onto the bar. No one seemed to notice. I pushed off the bar and found my way to the Men’s Room. Once secured behind the privacy barrier, I pulled the KT-71 from the satchel. The reading was faint, but constant.

I was dizzy with excitement. Constant! Were they here? In this pub? What were the odds that they would be in the very place I chose randomly?

I set the device to vibrate and paired the wireless sensor band to it. I slipped the band around my wrist, returned the KT-71 to the satchel, and took a breath. And another.

Was she out there? Or was it him? They must be in disguise. Maybe in their true identities? I felt like I did that night in the alley.

I slipped out of the Men’s Room, my senses hyper-active. The KT-71 sent a low and constant pulse to the band on my wrist. The door to the Ladies Room opened. The woman passed me, but the pulse remained constant. The door to the Other’s Room opened. The androgyny that strolled out didn’t affect the reading either.

I returned to the bar. My beer was gone, so I ordered another. No change in the pulse. I slowly scanned the lounge, watching the faces and body types of the crowd. I checked the tables and the tall boys. No one looked like super heroes. They all looked… ordinary.

The pulse quickened, ever so slightly. Instinctively, I glanced down at it, but it was a tactile output device with no display. The intensity of the pulse increased, as did the frequency. I tensed. My eyes darted around the pub. Major Storm would have towered over the crowd. No Major Storm. Gale Force would have parted it like the Red Sea. No Gale Force.

The pulse was now a steady, single throb that made my wrist bones chatter.

I turned.

The woman in the stool next to me looked nothing like Gale Force. She was thin and short. Her hair was a lusterless, straw mop tied behind her head in a short tail. Her complexion was ruddy, her features so plain they were pointless. She looked to be in her late forties or early fifties. Her clothes were drab and unappealing. She leaned on the bar wrapping boney fingers around an empty cocktail glass.

I looked past her, around her, hoping to spot the source of the signal.

The woman cocked her head in my direction.

“Buy a lady a drink?” she asked in a voice so abrasive it was like a dry stick scratching an old chalk board.

The pulse remained strong and steady.

“Ah, sure,” I said. “What are you…” I looked over the crowd again. “What are you drinking?”

“I’m drinking whatever you’re buying,”

“Okay.” I looked around as if a holo-menu floated about me. On impulse, I said, “You look like a Vodka Gimlet.”

“A Vodka Gimlet would be perfect,” she said, her raspy voice suddenly creamy smooth and alluring.

Normally, I’m socially inept. On those rare occasions when I do drink, I prefer to drink alone and it’s usually just a glass of red wine. Or three. I never go to parties, don’t hang with the boys, and I’m more comfortable at the museum than at a pub like this one.

But at that moment, after hearing the distinct change in her voice, I felt calm and competent. I looked at her closely and she seemed familiar.

“Have we met?” I asked.

“In a way.” Her voice was music.

“I’m… I’m sorry, but I don’t remember.”

She looked at me with eyes the pale color of robin’s eggs. The vibration on my wrist suddenly intensified. I jerked my hand off the bar in reaction. When I looked back at her, her eyes blazed with radiant violet.

I fell into them as they softened and dulled to their original pallor. The pulse returned to its former level. She slipped a card into my hand and slipped off her stool.

“Call me sometime,” she rasped. She turned and disappeared into the crowd without a look back.

I stared at where she had been for a long moment. I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t even thinking. Gradually, the pulse faded and the vibration stopped altogether. When I finally looked at the card, expecting to see a v-mail address or a smart-tab number, I was confused. The card was completely covered by lines of alpha-numeric characters, and mathematical operands.

I downed the beer and caught the next shuttle back to my parked apartment, dazed.

The next day, I watched the award presentation from my mem-chair in the comfort of my own apartment. The sat-channels had pooled their live coverage so each station had the same holographic video feed. Only the audio commentary would be unique. It didn’t matter to me; I wasn’t listening anyway. Only watching. Watching for her.

While waiting for them to appear, the network I was tuned to aired a holo-montage of some of Force and Storm’s recent exploits. Most of the video I already had in my library, but I watched with keen interest, anyway. I fingered the card the woman gave me the night before, absently turning it over and over in my hand as I focused on the viewer.

The KT-71 went off so suddenly, I nearly thrashed myself deeper into the mem-chair trying to get to it. I snatched the unit off the end table and stared at the readout. The signal strength was increasing fast. I managed to get out of the chair and bolted for the living room window. Twin forms soared directly toward Brooklyn Sector. They left no contrails in their wake, so I knew they weren’t aircraft. But, the clouds they bore through blew apart from the pressure of their velocity. They rocketed over the condo park in a cerulean blur. My apartment rocked in the turbulence, but the anchor beam held it securely to the docking ring.

I rushed for the opposite window and watched the forms recede into the distance on a direct heading toward the Unified Nations Complex in Long Island Sector. The two tiny forms slowed and angled upward, hovered a moment, then gently descended to the surface. I lost them in the clouds.

I was back in front of the wall screen in a second.

“Audio up,” I instructed the wall.

“Still no sign of the Tempest Team,” the commentator said, using one of the popular idioms that so annoyed me. “Wait, look there! Up in the sky...”

Please don’t…

The commentator let the old cliché dangle as the camera panned upward.

Gale Force and Major Storm glided languidly downward, feet first, arms outstretched. A wide smile lit up Storm’s chiseled face as he rotated to acknowledge the crowd. Force’s glorious hair trailed as she lowered. She too slowly spiraled, and she too displayed a broad smile.

“Tag face of figure on right,” I told the wall. A square appeared around Forces’ head. “Lock and enlarge.”

The viewer zoomed in on the square and her face filled the entire wall. I stood less than a meter from the screen, enthralled by the immense image of her exquisite face. Each time she rotated, I focused on a different part of her face. Her violet eyes. Moist lips. Rounded nose. Her throat…

When it was over, and they whooshed away. I cut the sat-feed and slipped back into my chair. I closed my eyes, but her image was burned into the back of them. The arrival replayed in my thoughts over and over...

She glides downward, spiraling slowly, arms outstretched. Glide. Spiral. Glide. Spiral. She turns her head toward me in mid–rotation, her golden hair sweeping behind her. Her violet eyes latch onto mine and I feel the electricity of our connection. She smiles, but not the public smile; this is a private offering for me alone. She lands on my balcony. The air-lock doors part and sequence. She glides inside, her feet centimeters from the floor, toes pointing down like a ballerina. Her face beams and I know it’s for me. She’s before me now, one hand lowering her uniform zipper, the other reaching for me. When our lips touch, her incredible bio-energy flows into me and I gasp at its joy and power. For a moment, I’m powerful and potent. A brief moment. Her face saddens as the energy flows back into her, but not just her energy. Mine, as well. I’m drained. Completely. My muscles atrophy. My bones crumble. My fluids evaporate. My flesh mottles.

I jerked awake.

What the hell.

I glanced around the dark apartment and realized I had slept the afternoon away. Groggy, I pushed my way out of the chair and noticed the card on the floor next to it. I picked it up. Turned it over. The second line of alpha-numeric characters jumped out at me.

I had seen that sequence before.

On the end table, the KT-71’s readout screen was blank. I picked up the unit and replayed its earlier bio-signature readings. At the apex of Force and Storm’s flight over Brooklyn Sector, when the readings were at their strongest…

The sequences were identical.

Identical.

What was she doing? Why did she give me this information? And, why me?

I looked at the first line on the card. Numeric, with plus and minus operands. Groups of numbers with spaces at irregular intervals. The third line contained another string of alpha-numeric characters. The last line included mathematical operands and looked like some sort of formula, but nothing I recognized.

Back to the first line. The way the numbers were grouped was familiar. Coordinates? Yes. They were latitude and longitude coordinates in the pedestrian degree-minutes-seconds format.

I faced the wall screen. “Wall. Search,” I said.

“Proceed,” the wall said.

“Display visual for DMS coordinates 48 degrees, 51 minutes, 9.5502 seconds north and 111 degrees, 8 minutes, 34.3782 seconds west and convert to Universal Transverse Mercator format.”

“Found,” the wall said. The viewer displayed a satellite image of a rugged, mountainous area. The coordinates were centered on the screen and indicated by a stylized, 3D push pin. To the east of the pin, the glowing label read Mount Royal, Liberty County, Montana.

“Display data for Mount Royal, Montana. Text only,” I said.

A holographic aperture opened on the left side, angled toward me, and displayed statistics for the site and the lat-long converted to UTM coordinates.

It was a relatively small peak as mountains go, only 2,086 meters. Not too far from the Canadian Quadrant border. Nearest town: Whitlash, Montana about 15 kilometers northwest. Was this their secret base?

There would be no condo park or sub-orbital hub I could take the apartment to. Not that far into the wilderness. I would have to rent a mag-car and, according to the wall, I couldn’t do that in Whitlash. Fortunately, there were a number of rental agencies in my home hub complex. I made a reservation for a compact car at the agency I often used, with a pick-up time of 0700. Next, I settled the bill with the Brooklyn Sector condo park, decoupled, and set the apartment on an auto-course back to my sub-orbital home hub. I went to bed, knowing that my apartment would handle the docking sequence on its own.

I awoke at 0500, showered, packed a light bag, and gathered my equipment. Of course, I took the KT-71, but I also packed other instruments I thought I might need including a data-tab link to my wall. I took the 0600 shuttle down to the ground-side mezzanine and picked up my rental car. I stowed my gear in the aft compartment, signed all the insurance and regulatory documents, agreed to bring it back fully charged (or pay an additional charging fee), and I was off.

I made it to Whitlash, Montana by mid-afternoon. Whitlash was a small town, with a couple of hotels off the mag-way, a factory or two, lots of retail outlets, and plenty of restaurants. There wasn’t much else. I parked my car outside a popular breakfast franchise and went inside, the KT-71 in my satchel. The unit’s wrist band was paired to it, but dormant at the moment. I ordered a light breakfast and surreptitiously watched and listened. The food was good, the conversation local. No mention of Force and Storm. The KT-71 never went off.

I wandered Whitlash the rest of the morning, learning nothing. After lunch at another popular franchise, I checked into a hotel and was back on the mag-way, but not before I performed a contract-violating act on my rental. Removing the mag-car’s blue-box transponder without tripping the tamper-alarm was a no-brainer for a doctorate-decorated theoretical scientist. It’s not that I intended to cheat the rental company out of chargeable kilometers, but if these coordinates did lead to Force and Storm’s hidden headquarters, I didn’t want to leave a digital trail right to their secret front door. I attached the transponder to a power cell I brought with, and stashed them both in my hotel room, leaving the transponder active. The log cache would show the mag-car never left Whitlash.

I left the mag-way about five kilometers out of town. I had to switch from magnetic to hover once I left the paved road, and the going was a lot slower. Besides the reduced speed of hover-mode, the terrain was rocky and uneven, making it difficult to navigate.

The coordinates led me to a boulder-ridden stretch of desolation. There was nothing there except rock, dirt, and more rock. The car’s environmental logic told me it was negative nine degrees Celsius outside with a northwesterly wind at fifteen knots. I sealed the thermal suit and slipped the hood over my head. I was pretty toasty when I opened the mag-car’s door.

After my exposed face became accustomed to the chill, I pulled out the KT-71 and swept the area with the sensor stylus. Nothing. I walked in circles for about an hour, casting an occasional concerned eye westward on the setting sun. I didn’t want to be out here after dark; no telling how cold it would get. Or what night denizens might find me appealing. There was no sound except the soft sigh of wind.

Another hour wandering the same circles. Still nothing. I was becoming discouraged and ready to quit for the night, when I recalled the card. I pulled out my data tablet and brought up the scanned image. The sequencing of the third line was unfamiliar to me. I knew it must have some purpose, though.

I thought it through like I was at work, building the next theory on the one before it. What did I have? I had the first line which provided a location to go to. Except it did not appear there was anything at this location. I had the second line, which confirmed their energy signature. Could the third line be an access code of some sort? That made sense. Okay, if it is, how do I transmit it, and to what?

I keyed the sequence into my data-tab and transmitted on a broad spectrum. Nothing happened. Shit. Okay, maybe… maybe as a security measure, the access code would only work for them. That made sense. Even my apartment used a bio-metric confirmation to prevent just anyone from moving it. I reconfigured the KT-71 to emit the energy signature, re-keyed the sequence into my data-tab, and transmitted it again.

Twenty meters to the east, the air shimmered soundlessly. I gaped at the distortion. I could see the horizon through it, but I could also make out colors in the wavering effect. Ripples of blue and red. I slipped the data-tab into my satchel and crept toward the distortion.

No sound came from the aperture, if that’s what it was. But as I stood before it, I noticed the breeze seemed to whip around it, as if it were a solid object. I circled it. The distortion diminished and completely disappeared when I was exactly opposite it. I made my way back to the other side, watching the air gradually waiver and shimmer until I was at my starting point.

I stared into the distortion, studying it. I had the KT-71 emitting, so I couldn’t take a reading on the distortion or what might be beyond it. I supposed I could have switched modes, but I didn’t want to take the chance the aperture would close and not open back up. There was only one way I could find out what was beyond it. And that was to go through it.

Unlike my experience in the alley, I was in my element here. Science. Still, there was an undercurrent of trepidation within me, a nagging itch just beneath my skin. I inched forward until I was less than a meter from the event horizon. My face tingled. I removed my right glove and tossed it through. There was a soft, sucking sound. I could see the glove on the other side, apparently intact. I raised my hand to the ripples. I suppose I should have thrust the KT-71’s sensor stylus through first, but I didn’t. My fingers grazed the effect, tingled, but didn’t shrivel up and drop off my hand.

I straightened my arm until it was beyond the effect up to my elbow. I could still move my fingers, and while my arm tingled from the distortion, my hand no longer did. I took a breath, and stepped completely through.

There was that brief sucking sound as I changed environments.

I stood rigid and surveyed my new surroundings. The air was still and laced with a subtle aroma I couldn’t place. Ambient lighting was low and indirect; it seemed to radiate from everywhere. I looked down at my feet. No shadow. The internal temperature wasn’t quite room temp, but a good deal warmer than outside. I peeled off the thermal hood.

I was in a narrow, featureless corridor. The walls blended into the floor and ceiling in smooth angles, rather than sharp perpendicular corners. Ahead of me, the corridor arced to the left. Behind me, the opening was gone. I stood before a solid, azure wall with the same, seamless corners.

I slipped the data-tab into my satchel and headed down the curving corridor. The featureless enclosure made it difficult to determine the size of the passageway. In fact, I couldn’t really be sure if I was walking on the deck, a wall, or the ceiling. It quickly became disorienting and I had to remind myself that gravity had me on the deck.

The passage angled again, this time to the right, and finally emptied into a vast chamber, equally featureless except for a single wall indirectly radiating soft red. An ovoid symbol hung on the wall, huge and glowing in gold with an odd arrangement of lines and angles resembling a maze. I recognized it immediately. I’d stared at her torso long enough to identify the mandala on Gale Force’s belt buckle.

I stopped a meter in front of the symbol and wondered what to do next. There didn’t appear to be any logic to the pattern. Some of the lines were thicker than others, giving the illusion of perspective, as if the lines converged far inside the mandala. I reached up and touched the symbol and slowly traced the zigzagging lines with a finger.

The voice scared the living shit out of me.

I jerked my hand from the symbol and staggered backward. The voice was gender-neutral and without pitch. It emanated from all around me, like the light. It was soft, yet pervasive, and spoke in a language I never heard before.

What had I triggered?

The alien voice droned on, reciting some unintelligible instructions or warning or the weather. I had no way to know. I listened to the sound of it, searching for a pattern in the phraseology. Didn’t find one. I fed the monologue to my apartment wall via my data-tab. The wall came up blank.

And then it just stopped. I pivoted slowly, my eyes taking in the luminosity of the walls and the glow of the symbol.

“Who the hell are you?” The new voice was rich and deep. Booming. And human. I knew that voice. My blood chilled. I turned slowly.

Major Storm hovered half-a-meter above the deck, towering over me. Fists clenched and mounted on his hips, chest thrust outward, chin lowered, violet eyes piercing. His face was creased in anger.

My throat was so dry and constricted I couldn’t make an intelligible sound.

“How did you get here?” He drifted lower, until his toes grazed the deck. He smelled of ozone. My muscles went lax and I trembled.

He grabbed a handful of my thermal suit and pulled me off the deck, easily lifting me to his eye level. His breath was hot on my face.

“Answer my questions.”

I couldn’t.

“Put him down, Bill.” The contrast between his voice and hers was like dark chocolate and vanilla. Gale Force hovered behind Storm and rested a hand on his shoulder. We all drifted back to the deck, as if she was pushing us down.

“Let him go,” she said calmly. He released his hold on my suit and I stumbled backward. Like a bolt of lightning, Storm’s hand shot out and snatched my throat in his massive grip and squeezed. I tried to pry his fingers apart, but it was like trying to manipulate granite. My vision blurred as I struggled for breath.

“I said let him go.”

“Not until he answers my questions, Gale. I want to know how he found the portal and what his game is.”

Storm stared me down with his electric, indigo eyes. His face radiated a rage I never saw in the news footage. At this moment, he was nothing like his public persona. My head throbbed. My sight feathered and darkened. My hands slipped off his stone grip and fell away limply.

“He can’t answer them if he can’t breathe,” I heard her say somewhere in the void I was slipping into.

The pressure around my throat let up and my airway opened enough for me to gasp in a few precious breathes.

“Now,” she commanded.

Storm opened his hand and I fell to my hands and knees. I broke into a spasm of hacking as my airway completely reopened.

“He’s not going to talk to you, Bill. Look at him. He’s tough as rock. You won’t be able to break him with force.”

I looked at them through teary eyes, my limbs trembling, Storm’s face was volcanic. His eyes sparked. Tiny spikes of voltage actually crackled from his pupils. His breathing was rapid and shallow. In fact, his entire body seemed enlarged. Clearly, he was just barely containing his rage. Gale rested a hand on his chest and looked up at him. The effect was immediate; his color returned to normal, his breathing slowed and I swear I thought he shrank just a bit.

“All right,’ he said.

She removed her hand and took a deep breath. “G-good,” she managed to say. What had she done to him? To herself?

“What about him?” Storm asked.

“Let me handle him,” she said. “My way.” She levitated until their faces were level and kissed him soft on the mouth. He slid a hand into the small of her back and drew her closer. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I scrutinized every curve of her body. The subtle swelling of her calves. The hollow of her knees. The slope of her hips.

The arch of her back.

They separated and Gale hovered before him. ‘Wait for me at the ranch. I’ll be there soon.”

“Don’t be long,” he said.

She nodded.

Storm pressed his mandala and an aperture opened behind him. He pivoted in mid-air and flew through it. The rift closed behind him with that creepy, sucking sound.

Gale Force rotated and glided toward me. I pushed myself up on shaky, uncertain legs as she lowered to the deck. She smelled of a spice I couldn’t place. My eyes zeroed in on her zipper and the swell of her breasts, barely restrained by the leather. She slid her fingers under my chin and raised my face until our eyes met.

I wanted to bare my soul to this woman. Tell her everything. About my life. About science. About our future together. Instead…

“H-his real name is Bill?” I asked.

She smirked and released my chin. “Really? That’s the first thing you say to me ‘His real name is Bill?’”

“I…”

She sighed. “Never mind. You found the portal. I’m impressed.” She hovered before me.

“It wasn’t all that difficult,” I said with difficulty. My head swooned. The yearning for her made my bones heavy. I tried to focus on the conversation. “You laid a pretty clear trail.”

“It wasn’t all that clear. But I knew when I sensed you in the alley that you might have what it takes.”

“You knew I was there?”

She smiled and glided backwards a few yards away. As she did, that heaviness diminished a bit. My head settled down. “Of course. Bill didn’t, though.”

“You, but not Major Storm?”

“Bill isn’t as attuned as I am. None of them were.”

“None of them? I don’t understand.”

“The others. None of the other Storms were as sensitive to things as I am. Maybe it’s because they were men. I don’t know why.”

“Other Storms? There were other Major Storms before…” I felt awkward saying his name. “Before Bill?”

She glided back to me. I felt my core temperature elevate a few degrees as she approached.

“Bill was the sixth… no, the seventh Storm.”

“The seventh? What happened to them? When? How did we… how did we not know?”

Her smile waned and she dropped to the deck. At that moment, when her mood dampened, the desire that permeated my cells evaporated. The rapid draining of all that passion was startling, even alarming.

“Every one of them took on the same form. That same, Adonis-like body Jason transformed into when we first came into the power.”

“Jason? He was the first?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. The sullenness in her voice touched me, made me sad as well. I was beginning to understand something of her abilities. Whether she was aware of it or not, she openly radiated her emotions.

“How many…” was I being insensitive? Should I ask? “I mean, which Gale Force are you?”

She turned and faced me with an ironic smile. “I’m the first. The only Gale Force.”

“May I ask your real name?”

“Sure. It’s Gail.”

Gail. I liked it. Of course I did. “What happened to the others?” I asked.

Again, a wash of sadness enveloped me. “They burned out. Something in their genetic structure processes the energy differently than I do. I didn’t understand at first. It wasn’t until after Mark--” at my questioning glance she added, “--he was the fourth Storm. After Mark, I recognized the onset of the burn-out. Aggressive, sometimes violent outbursts. Lust. A craving for more of the energy. I found I could siphon some of it from them, not a lot, but enough to keep them from exploding. Like Peter.”

Bill. Jason. Mark. Peter. I needed a score card. “Is that what was happening to Bill?”

“Yes. It’s his time.”

I had a thousand more questions. How did she find me in that pub? Why did she lead me here? Where did this energy come from? How does she draw from it? Why do all the Storms look the same?

“In the pub,” I asked. “You looked different. Older. Weaker. Sorry, I mean less powerful.”

“It’s all right. Weaker is the right word. I don’t like it, but I have to revert to my natural state every so often for my cells to regenerate. We’re not totally invulnerable. But being in this form…” she rose to her toes and lightly grazed the deck as she rotated, arms outstretched. She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and smiled wide. I felt a stirring deep within me and felt intimate with her, knowing the arousal was coming from her. “In this form, I’m powerful. Essential. Necessary. This energy. It’s liberating. We see things so much more clearly when we’re powered up. The power enlightens us. Gives us a broader perspective. In our natural forms our thoughts are limited and clouded.”

She didn’t say it, but I could feel her emanations. They were intoxicating and addictive. And carnal.

She alighted before me and smiled. “I gave you the energy signature, these coordinates, and the access code to see if you could understand them and find this place. It was a test to see if you were worthy.”

“W-worthy of what?”

She rose again to her toes and balanced on them as if she were weightless. “To be the next Major Storm.”

My mouth was dry. My heart beat rapidly, almost painfully. I couldn’t have heard that right.

“Would you like that?” she asked

“I…”

How many nights did I dream of this moment? How many days did I fantasize I could be with her? And here she is. My head spun as if I just did double-chasers. I tried to regain my focus. I had to regain my focus. I was a scientist.

Focus.

“Wha… what about the fourth set of numbers?” I mumbled the question.

“Fourth set of numbers?” She cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly, as if she didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

“There were four sets of numbers. On the card. The one you gave me in the pub.”

She gazed over my shoulder, like she was searching her memory for a trivial, long-forgotten detail.

“Don’t you remember?” I asked.

She shot me an annoyed glance. “Of course I remember giving you the card. My natural state doesn’t always think with the same clarity as I do. Ignore them. They don’t mean anything. I wanted to see if you could find me, if you recall. That’s why I gave you the card.”

“Will I look like Bill?”

She smiled. “Oh, yes. You’ll look like all of them. The perfect man.”

I found that irresistible. To be her perfect man. And yet, something deep inside me, some tiny nag, did resist. It called to me like a lone voice in a raucous crowd.

She circled me, toes feathering the deck every so lightly, a finger delicately tracing my shoulders, until she was facing me again. Her hand slid across my cheek until it was cupping my head. The touch sent tremors through my upper body. She drew closer, brushed her moist lips across mine and kissed me. A mere meeting at first, then deeper. Her lips parted slightly.

My body responded with vitality. She was sending her energy into me, I could feel it flow. Not much, a trickle really. But, my muscles swelled. My vision sharpened. My scalp tingled, and I swear my jaw broadened. The passion that coursed through me was more intense than I could have imagined.

She withdrew her kiss and I felt the power recede. Longing replaced the euphoria. Disappointment and sadness.

She pulled back her hand and levitated a few feet away from me. I sensed she wanted me to feel the loss. Wanted me to want her even more. “We could be partners, you and I,” she said. “In every sense of the word.”

“Y-yes,” I mumbled.

She smiled again. “I’m pleased. I need to go take care of Bill,” she said. “I’ll meet you on your apartment in the morning.”

“Y-yes.”

Her hands dropped to her abdomen and so did my eyes. I watched as she traced the ridges of her mandala. The aperture opened behind her. Our eyes met as she glided backwards though the opening, one hand outstretched to me. The aperture closed after her.

I dropped to my ass and rested my head on bent knees. My head still swirled. I was disoriented. That taste of power left me drained. I wanted more of it. More of her. I wanted to be the perfect man for the perfect woman. God, I wanted to be the next Major Storm.

And I will. As soon as she takes care of…

Bill.

I straightened. The tiny voice inside me, drowned out by the din of events, now reached me with whispered questions. How, exactly, is Gale taking care of Bill? What will happen to him? Will that happen to me? Will I burn out like the others?

The exhilaration faded. My thoughts cleared and my body settled into normalcy as the effect of her presence wore off. I reconnected with... what did she call it? My natural state.

It was like being two different people. And if that tiny sample of power affected me as it did, how did such prolonged and direct exposure to it affect her? It must have radically altered…

She said it. ‘My natural state doesn’t always think with the same clarity as I do.’

Or maybe, the other way around?

Still seated, I reached into my satchel and pulled out my data-tab. I swiped the display until the image of the card appeared. I focused on the fourth set of numbers. She, Gale Force that is, wanted me to find her. But, what did Gail Natural State want? I stood and faced the ovoid symbol on the wall. I touched its raised ridges, tracing the exact same pattern I had just seen Gale Force use on her mandala.

With a pop like a clogged drain suddenly freed, a massive opening replaced the ovoid symbol. It shimmered, like the aperture did. What I saw on the other side left me hollow. Hot wind blew into the chamber with a stench of ozone and decay. I squinted my eyes at the glare of what was in front of me.

As I gawked, the KT-71 began screaming.

~

I sank into my mem-chair, exhausted. She would be here soon and then my life would change forever. I continued to flip through the sat-channels on my wall viewer, skipping over each news program airing footage of Force and Storm.

I waved my hand over the hovering remote-orb. The screen blanked out, then returned to its natural taupe. I pushed myself deeper into the mem-chair and let it wrap around me. I closed my eyes, but as tired as I was, sleep wouldn’t take me. I knew it wouldn’t.

The KT-71 chirped. She was coming.

I eased out of the chair and lifted the data-tab. I swiped a ribbon on the screen and set the device back down on the table. On the wall, a tiny icon appeared in the upper, right-hand corner. It was muted and hardly noticeable.

She landed on the balcony with soundless grace. The patio air lock cycled at her approach and she levitated through it. She touched down before me, a broad smile on her face, and a fabric-wrapped bundle under one arm.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

She pursed her lips in a playful pout. “Is there any doubt?”

I felt the stirring of desire and knew she was manipulating my physiology again. I focused on resistance. But… it felt so good. “What’s that?” I asked nodding at the bundle under her arm. The wave of sexual hunger diminished slightly while she was distracted. I had to keep it up.

“Bill’s uniform. It’s yours now.”

“Will it fit?”

“It will once you transform to Major Storm. You’ll have the same form they all did.”

I nodded. “And, what happened to Bill?

“It was his time.”

“He burned out?”

She set the bundle on the mem-chair and paced, not glided, toward me. I felt the rush again. “No. I helped him past it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember at the portal, when he was about to explode?” she asked. I nodded. “I siphoned some of the excess energy from him. I can do that. So, I spared him the agony of burning out.”

In my dream, she had sucked the life force from me. The images of my body shriveling up and crumbling to dust rattled me. And countered some of her radiating lust.

“Will you do that for me, if the time comes?” I asked.

“When the time comes,” she gently corrected. “And, yes.”

I let that sink in. “So. How do I do it? Transform into Major Storm?”

Force reached into the bundle and pulled out Bill’s mandala. “This will calibrate itself to your bio-field. Once it attunes to you, no one but you can use it while you’re alive.”

“How does it work?”

“Does it matter?”

“Where does the power come from?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Where does the power come from?” I hadn’t realized I had raised my voice until she didn’t reply. She lowered the mandala and pinned me with a direct stare. All traces of passion evaporated. Instead, I felt her rising anger. If she hit me with a bio-blast I was a dead man.

“I’m just curious,” I said quickly. “I’m a scientist. I like to know how things work. Why things happen. Will I still feel that way once I transform?” I felt her ire lessen.

“Probably not. Once we become powered, our perspectives broaden. Little concerns such as these are ignored for the greater good.”

She really believed that. In this form, she did. But in her natural state, those little concerns were not so irrelevant. The fourth set of numbers confirmed that. But, as misguided as she was, she had done so much good for the world. Gale Force and a gaggle of Major Storms had. I needed to reach her. She deserved a chance.

“Gale,” I said softly. “I already know how it works. I know where the power comes from.”

“Really.” Her tone was cold. I felt her hold weakening. “And what do you know?”

“I opened the dimensional gateway. I saw the other world.”

“Other world.”

“I’m a climatologist, Gale. I know what happens to a planet when its magnetic field is compromised. Every time you’ve used your powers, you’ve tapped into that world’s magnetic field. The portal converts the magnetic energy into the bio-energy that powers you. My guess is the portal was designed to use the other planet’s magnetic field as a sustainable power source for them while they were here visiting, or exploring, or whatever. The drain would be negligible if it was just used by them. Doesn’t make sense for it to be otherwise. But you. And the Storms. Your human bodies absorbed and processed the energy differently. You sucked it up like a sponge, drawing more of it the longer you used it.”

She glared at me and I felt the lust bubble away. I needed to press forward.

“When did you find it?” I asked. “The portal, I mean.”

She gave me an appreciative smile. “I knew you were the right choice. All right. Jason and I found the portal about sixty-two years ago. We were both park rangers and happened to spot one of the aliens coming out of it. Damnedest thing we ever saw. We never did find out who they were or how long they were coming here. Or what they wanted. When it came back, we approached it. It attacked us and we killed it.”

She said it without remorse, nonchalantly, as if reading a menu.

“Another one popped out and we killed that one too. While I was searching the body of the first one, I touched the symbol it was wearing.” She rested her fingers on her abdomen next to her mandala. “An energy pulse paralyzed me for a few seconds, but in that time, the device calibrated itself to my body and transformed me into this magnificent creature you see before you now.” She smiled and traced the back of her hand down the inside of her thigh. I did a quick intake of breath as the hunger intensified.

“Is there anything else you would like to know?” she purred. “In a few moments, you’ll not be concerned with any of this.”

“M-maybe not,” I fought to get the words out. “But while I’m still in my natural state, it matters. Just like it did when you were in your natural state.”

She glided to me and took my hand and rested it on her hip. It was like molten lava coursing up my arm.

“When you were in your natural state, you saw what was happening.” I said. “I saw it, too. Every time you used your powers you drew from the other planet’s mag field. The harder and longer you used them, the more you drained the field. Even remaining in your Force and Storm forms sucked at their mag field. Bottom line, your continued use of your powers over six decades has dangerously weakened the other planet’s magnetic field.”

“What’s your point?”

Something suddenly dawned on me. “Son of a bitch,” I said. “All those extra-terrestrial attacks over the past sixty years... it was them, wasn’t it? Trying to get their portal back. Trying to save their world.”

“Again, what is your point?” I felt my yearning for her wisp away. I pulled my hand from her hip and backed off.

“My point is, you’re destroying that world. As it loses its magnetic field, solar radiation is pouring in. And if the mag field continues to degrade, solar winds could completely rip the atmosphere away. But, no matter. By that time, every life form on the planet that hadn‘t already succumbed to cancer would have been cooked by the x-rays and gamma rays the magnetic field used to protect them from.”

“My concern is for this planet. Not a nameless one a dimension away.”

“I think your concern is for the power coursing through your body. And for the youth and vitality it gives you. Those people are paying a high price for you. Look, Gale. You can stop this. All we have to do is shut down the portal. Once we do that, the other planet’s magnetic field will begin to rejuvenate itself. They can heal.”

Maybe I phrased that wrong. She backhanded me, sending me flying over the mem-chair. I crashed into the wall behind it.

I spat blood on the floor. Gale flipped the mem-chair over her shoulder with an effortless toss. She grabbed me by my shirt and lifted me just as Major Storm had done. My legs kicked in mid-air. My head spun, though this time not from sexual arousal. She clenched a fist and drew back her arm. The air around her hand sizzled and stank of ozone. A bio-blast would obliterate me.

“G-Gale. You don’t need to do this,” I gasped. “The power is addictive. It alters your thinking. Changes who you are. In your natural state, you understood what was happening to you. To them. I think you wanted to stop it, but couldn’t. The other Gail, she tried to--”

“I hate that pathetic weakling!” Her shout shattered the windows and a rush of air nearly sucked us out before they auto-sealed. Her fist crackled. I tensed. I was out of time. Out of options.

“Wall,” I croaked. “Transmit now.”

The little muted icon in the upper right-hand corner of the wall glowed. “Transmission complete,” the wall said.

Her face, already creased with rage, twitched. “What did you just do?”

She released her grip and I crashed to the floor. She stumbled backwards. The air around her shimmered. She looked at her hands, front and back, then at me again.

“What did you do?” she repeated. Her voice broke. Her uniform seemed to expand, but in reality it was her body that was shrinking. “What did…”

She dropped to her hands and knees. The leather uniform, which could barely contain her incredible body, now hung on her like a loose blanket. Her lustrous, golden hair was patchy and the color of dirty straw. I saw boney fingers go to her belt, saw them trace a path on the raised ridges of the mandala.

Nothing happened.

She looked up and I caught my breath. Her face was hollowed with age, boney with dry, wrinkled skin. Those moist, natural lips that had kissed me were now nothing more than thin edges of a gash in her face. Her smooth hands were just twigs of bone under mottled flesh. A diarrhetic odor wafted from her. I covered my mouth and nose with my hand.

“You s-shut it down,” she wheezed.

“Yes. The fourth set of numbers. Gale, what’s happening to you?”

“I n-never totally reverted to my natural state. I always stopped at a certain point.”

“Why?”

“I was fifty-seven when I found the portal. That was sixty-two years ago. D-do the math.”

“I didn’t realize… I didn’t know it would kill you.”

“I know. I… know. T-thank you.”

I knew I was talking to Gail now, not Gale Force. “The world is going to change,” I said.

“T-two worlds. You… you have to…” She never finished her sentence. She lay on her side, curled into a mummified, fetal ball. And died.

I dropped down next to her, taking rapid, shallow breaths through my mouth. My chest ached. My head throbbed. My eyes were jelly.

I rolled onto my hands and knees as the realization of what I had done hit me. I killed them. I destroyed the two greatest treasures the world had ever known. Who would protect us now? What the hell was I thinking?

I just killed Gale Force and Major Storm.

I emptied my stomach onto the floor.

~

I ordered another beer from the floating holo-menu and looked over the pub. Nothing had changed since Gale Force gave me the card over a year ago. Same clientele. Same salty-crunchy snacks. Same chakra-jazz music. I wasn’t a regular, but I found myself coming here whenever I was in Manhattan Sector. When it was open, I sat in the same seat I sat in back then.

The disappearance of Gale Force and Major Storm had not gone unnoticed by the world. Far from it. In the past year, natural disasters were left to run their courses, man-made catastrophes went unchallenged, pleas for interviews remained unanswered. Speculation ran rampant. News pundits bandied theories on where they had gone, and why. Church groups held candle-light vigils offering prayers for their return. The Unified Nations Security Council issued a joint resolution of concern. Big deal. The leagues and teams of costumed champions rallied in their absence, but they all gradually faded from the scene as vigilante laws regained focus in the void left by Force and Storm’s departure. It had been a rough year for the world. And for me.

My beer arrived and I sipped it through the foam. As I always did, I stole a look at the seat beside me, the one Gail had sat in. Another woman sat there now; slender, smooth skin, sky-blue hair plunging to her bare shoulders. She wore a loose-fitting halter garment that matched her hair in color and clung to her every curve. She noticed my not-so-surreptitious glance and smiled politely. I returned her smile with a sheepish one of my own, and quickly turned back to my beer. The confidence I once had as a potential Major Storm was gone.

After Gail died, I took the mandalas back to the portal in Montana. I went to the ovoid symbol and opened the gateway to the other world. And waited. It wasn’t long before a pair of aliens from the other side, wearing mandalas of their own, stepped through. They looked human enough, except for the high foreheads and radial slits for ears. I laid Force and Storm’s mandalas at their feet and backed away, half-expecting to be vaporized. They picked up the mandalas and, without an alien word, opened the aperture to my side of the portal. I stepped through and the aperture closed behind me with that same, creepy, sucking sound. Less than ten seconds later, a pressure wave knocked me off my feet and I knew they had returned the portal to their world.

I finished my beer and thought about having another, as I worked up the courage to talk to the woman in Gail’s seat.

No one except me knew where Force and Storm really came from or what really happened to them. And no one else ever would. Without even realizing it, we, as a society, had grown dependent on them for our welfare and for the first time in half a century, we were responsible for the risks in our own lives.

I slid the empty mug to the edge of the bar, took a long, deep breath, and swiveled toward the woman with the sky-blue hair.

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