September 24, 2011

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4Sworn, Session Twelve

Previous Session: April 30, 2011 Next Session: October 15, 2011

Perdition, Psion, Shockwave, Starfire.

Contents

Experience Points

Psion, Shockwave, and Zap received 300 points for their battle with the Man With Green Gloves.


The Team Decided to Build a Miniature Amber Room in the Firehawk's Helicopter Hangar

Starfire's voice echoed off the walls of the helicopter hangar bay near the stern of the Firehawk as he, Psion, and Shockwave discussed their construction plans. The crew had already begun to amass equipment and tools for the project, as well as the amber panels retrieved from the copper mine in the Harz Mountains. “Four tons of amber shouldn't be too hard to come by.”

Mindy Westerberg looked up from her own table near the construction staging area. “Based on what I've looked into, four tons of suitable amber should cost on the order of fifty million U.S. Dollars.”

“Do we have that much?” asked Shockwave.

Psion looked from Mindy to Starfire and back as the scope of this project began to sink in. While the group could afford such a cost, it could have long-term consequences for their investment and funding strategies. They'd have to sell off ownership of critical intellectual property.

But Mindy hadn't finished. “That's a substantial enough purchase from the commodities market that the price would likely increase if we tried to do it too quickly.”

Shockwave shook her head in frustration. “So it's going to take us a long time to build it.”

“Perhaps if we synthesized the amber we needed,” Psion mused aloud.

Mindy shook her head, “That would certainly reduce the cost … we could make a good reproduction of Baltic grade amber with the minimal occlusions Leibniz specified, but the process wouldn't be very fast. It might be a good use of some of this damaged amber as a seed material.”

Psion nodded as a new idea formed. “Indeed. As I recall, the original plans called for a room twenty by twenty feet wide, by fifteen feet high?”

“Yes.”

“Then if we produce a one-fifth scale model, only four by four by three feet, we'll require only one seventy-fifth the materials and less time.”

Starfire smirked. “An Amber Helmet.”

Shockwave got excited with a new idea. “We could build a shrinking ray!”

Everyone stopped and looked at her. Even some midshipmen paused as they carried in supplies.

Psion frowned and asked, “Build a full-scale version and then shrink it?”

“No! Build the scale model, then shrink you and put you in it.”

Starfire smacked his palms together in amusement. “I like this plan!”

Psion held up his hand in protest and tried to explain, “By constructing a scale model of the actual room first, we'll be able to take measurements and test the effects of the configuration before committing to constructing the full sized version.”

Shockwave looked disappointed. Starfire and Mindy looked amused. The two midshipmen went back to pushing a cart of construction materials into the room and securing it to a bulkhead. But when he saw the look on Shockwave's face he chose to equivocate a bit to maintain her enthusiasm, “But who knows? The miniature might be able to provide us with some or all of the answers we seek!”

“But how are we going to be able to test it if you're not … tiny?”

“Can't we just build the model on a stage and stick my head in through a hole in the bottom?”

Not all of Shockwave's doubts were relieved. “I would prefer to shrink you.”

Starfire struggled to keep from laughing and tried to keep the discussion focused. “What about the costs of amber? Mindy said the price of amber would rise as we bought four tons of it … we should keep an eye out for a spike like that.”

Psion consulted a tablet net interface and looked at the price of amber over the last several years. “Hmmm … one potential such spike may have already happened.” He consulted a few cross-references and a moment later had more details. “It seems back in 2001 three amber mines in Yantarny, Russia flooded, forcing cutbacks in the region's annual amber production.”

“Somebody needs to go check those mines out,” said Shockwave.

Starfire agreed. “Someone with the ability to breathe underwater could easily have been excavating what they need from them.”

Psion shook his head. “Look, I understand you both feel this is important, but I continue to stress that the Amber Room and The Auteur are side issues and the primary threat we need to stay focused on is extra-terrestrial. I want to continue to build on our relations with Species 2001a, visit Bouvet Island in search of more survivors, and try to get a better understanding from them of what attempted to come through that spatial anomaly.”

Starfire shrugged. “If you guys think the flooded mines are a lead, I can go check that out while you go talk to bugs. Because I can go under water, no problem.”


Starfire Found Proof of Recent Excavations in Abandoned Amber Mines

A chain-link fence around the abandoned property was a poor deterrent against Starfire. He set foot on the sandy soil and stepped through the wooded terrain along the edge of an open pit now filled with water. With little hesitation, he stepped into the artificial lake and dropped into its still depths. Brilliant lights stabbed outward into the gloom and illuminated a bottom covered in blue sand, but as he touched bottom, his motions quickly stirred up thick clouds of sediment, obscuring his vision, so he abandoned that location and moved farther away. There, along a seam of blue sand, he found clear indications of recent excavations made after the pit had filled with water. Spotlights flaring from his hands whisked across the submarine landscape and to his astonishment showed a large quantity of material had been removed. By his estimate, at least 100 to 150 cubic yards of raw material were gone … and how the excavated material had been removed was anybody's guess.


Perdition, Shockwave, and Psion Escorted Dave to Bouvet Island

Once more, the PsiPlane dropped out of Antarctic skies near the Gruber Mountains to retrieve the Mantid the team had designated “Dave” before heading off the Bouvet Island. Curious about Shockwave's suggestion that Species 2001a possessed a hive mind, Psion discretely swept their passenger with a variety of onboard psionic and technological sensors, looking for indications of shared consciousness. No evidence of such a link revealed itself.

But the insect wore a new artifact … an octahedral amulet identical to one they'd seen worn by Specimen 1 in their encounters with Doctor Medusa years earlier. No one was quite certain about the device's function, but now it seemed clear that it could be used as a translation device.

The craft arced over the South Atlantic and circled the desolate island that rose from the cold, gray ocean like an ice-covered plateau. Surrounded by icebergs and veiled with low cloud formations that scudded over its ice and snow-covered hills, the small island somehow seemed even more desolate than Antarctica. Shear cliffs, thrusting up hundreds of feet from the sea made almost any approach from the water pointless.

Psion slowed his vehicle and opened a number of sensor ports, flooding the island with active scanner emissions and focusing passive sensors on likely terrain features in search of any sign of life. The remains of an abandoned meteorological station, smashed by an ice shelf that broke away, along the shore of the island distracted him briefly, but as soon as its terrestrial nature was proven, he directed the vehicle's scanners elsewhere. As he worked, he cast several glances at their guest, carefully looking for any changes in posture or bearing that might give a clue about its mental state. But the insect displayed a parsimony of outward activity. Even its sophisticated compound eyes seemed designed to allow the creature to study any detail it wanted with minimal changes of orientation of its triangular head.

When his curiosity could contain him no longer, Psion broke the silence. “My species is social to the point of gregariousness. A moment like this, when the fate of missing members of our party is about to be revealed, would cause us considerable anxiety and excitement. Yet you display no such outward emotion that I can observe. What do you feel right now?”

“I find my surroundings and much of what I've experienced on the trip thus far to be highly interesting.”

Psion glanced back at Shockwave as if to say, “I like these guys.”

Shockwave leaned forward and studied the island for several long minutes. “It's like Skull Island, only covered with a glacier.”

“Are you worried about getting sacrified to a giant gorilla?”

Shockwave chuckled softly behind her helmet then turned to their mantid guest. “That reminds me, what did you think of the movies?”

Dave swiveled a triangular head in a snap towards her, its feelers bouncing briefly from inertia and perhaps a demonstration that the insect recognized the hero's reluctance to address it. “We found them highly interesting. Are these representative of your entertainment media?”

“Yes.” The mantid's reflection in her helmet's visor remained motionless as they stared at each other through an awkward silence. “Do … you guys … have entertainment media?”

“Some of our species do. It is a complex subject. Your culture appears to be obsessed with time travel.”

Shockwave struggled to keep the chit-chat going. What do you say to a sentient insect that's making observations about what interests your own species? Especially one that always looks like it's about to pounce and eat you. “Well, it's a fun fantasy,” was the best reply she could muster.

But something clicked for Psion. He again looked away from his instruments and regarded the guest, looking for a reaction as he asked, “Would you like to see some?”

But Shockwave rolled her head with frustration and turned to the telepath, “Not right now! We're in the middle of a search … focus!”

“But if you're too focused, you miss opportunities to introduce serendipity!”

Then an idea struck her; a possible way to beat the Auteur at his own game, “Can we go into the future?”

But Dave interrupted with another twitch of the head, “You are capable of volitional time travel?”

“We are developing the process. However, we can move forward and backward in time on limited excursions with limited utility.”

“What is the nature of these limitations?”

The insect was so difficult to read, thought Psion. There was no common body language with which to gauge the mantid's reaction to the revelation. “We are unable to affect things in the past – we can only observe.”

“Your species seems to devote immense resources to these entertainment media.”

Shockwave nodded and said, “Yes. The majority of our species are unsatisfied with their current lives and therefore escape into these media.”

“Interesting.”

An indicator distracted everyone. On the flight deck's windscreen, lasers drew an illuminated target over the terrain and began listing artificial components at the target site. The telepathic interface flooded Psion's consciousness with details about the find. “This resembles our discoveries at Lake Untersee. The debris is entombed in ice at substantial depth. That looks like a good place to set down.”

The craft scudded across a sky painted with dark, rolling clouds and hovered over a patch of ice … its powerful searchlights cutting through the weak afternoon gloom.

Shockwave dropped like a non-corporeal wraith through the skin of the craft and then through the ice. Diving through thirty meters of solid ice was little harder than moving through thirty meters against a stiff breeze to her. She found the capsule, dimly lit in spite of the brilliant glare shone in her direction from the PsiPlane. It was empty. A nearby rocky outcrop showed signs of deep, hollow recesses and Psion decided that was the most likely place to find more Species 2001a survivors. He settled the PsiPlane about 100 meters away from it and Perdition and Dave followed Psion to the airlock so they could meet Shockwave on the surface.

A bracing wind greeted them as the airlock doors opened and the team struck out towards the caves.


The Team Found a Cave and Searched for Alien Survivors – “Don't Quantum Entangle My Mojo!”

Shockwave stepped under a low, rocky basaltic edge and into the darkness beyond. Dave and Psion followed her and Perdition came through last. Flashlights lit the winding passage, and Psion knelt to examine the cave floor. “This doesn't look good. There were once tracks here, but this passage doesn't look recently used.” He rose and stared down the passage. Despite his doubts, he cautioned the others, “Remember, if we get into a conflict, it is most likely the result of a misunderstanding. If it comes to a fight, withdraw. We don't have to win this.”

[Psion and Shockwave both roll 92 for detect hidden]

On the floor of the cave, Shockwave found an abandoned blanket, cold and inert. Dave took it from her and examined it. “It appears to be drained of power.”

“What do you guys do if it gets too cold? Do you hibernate?”

“We have technological means of sustaining ourselves. Ultimately, we die. For this to have been left here would indicate it was no longer required.”

Shockwave shrugged, “So they dropped a blanket.”

Psion shook his head slowly. “No longer required because they have a better heat source, or no longer required because there's no one left to be kept warm.”

The mantid confirmed Psion's worries, “It would appear to indicate a deteriorating situation.”

[Psion and Perdition simultaneously roll 89. There are accusations that someone is quantum entangling people's mojo, but the recording is garbled]

Soon, the team finds the remains of an encampment. Crates of supplies and equipment cut off the deepest portion of the cave from the rest of the tunnel, with inert blankets stuffed into the cracks. The carcass of a single, frozen mantid lay on the floor, swaddled in blankets. A number of small pieces of equipment surrounded the corpse.

Over the telepathic switchboard, Psion advised Perdition and Shockwave to stand back and give Dave a moment with the discovery. The mantid moved in with careful deliberation, assessing the environment similarly to his movements when he first boarded the PsiPlane. Dave's interest in the body itself was brief, but it soon turned to the devices found around the carcass. The mantid picked up one book-sized device and pulled a component from the edge, replacing it with a similar object from his belt. The gadget's screen lit up and it emitted a series of clicking and whirring noises. Psion tried to follow the alien language as best he could, but the interface challenged the capabilities of Firehawk's gift of tongues.

[Discussion of Chinese poem “Shi”]

Dave held out the box with the multicolored screen and said, “There is a log here. Data as well as narrative.”

Shockwave pointed to the dead mantid on the ground. “Was he the only survivor?”

“No. There were others.”

“Somewhere else?”

“They were consumed as they expired. Our survival equipment includes apparatuses for conversion of corpses under such exigences.”

Psion asked, “Do you mourn your dead?”

“I find their passing regrettable.”

“How many were there?”

“Fifteen. Unfortunately sufficient power sources were not in the pod.”

“I'm very sorry about your loss. I was hoping for a better outcome.”

“I note your concern, and hope you do not find it emotionally destabilizing.”

Psion doubted the mantid would understand the significance of his raised eyebrow even if the creature could see it beneath his helmet's visor. “What equipment would you like to transport aboard the PsiPlane back to your encampment?”

“All of it is potentially useful.”

Shockwave gestured at the dead mantid. “Do you bury your dead? Or ...”

“We consume them as necessary.”

Perdition and Shockwave shifted uncomfortably even though both had seen that coming. Psion nodded and said, “Then we'll transport this corpse as well.”

Dave began to divide the equipment into separate piles, apparently intending each to be handled by one member of the team. Interestingly, Dave's understanding of Perdition, Psion's and Shockwave's relative strength proved the creature's refined perspicacity … each pile was well-suited to the carrier, although it did not seem to account for Shockwave's extraordinary speed.

Shockwave was about to show off, intending to whisk her load out to the PsiPlane and come back in a blur, but Psion cautioned her telepathically –

“Don't do that. The less they know about our abilities, the better off we are. We may one day have a productive, even friendly relationship with Species 2001a, but we should be cautious about demonstrating our powers. If they ultimately become an adversary, I'd prefer they underestimate our strength. They don't need to know about our telepathic communication. They don't need to know how fast you are.”

“They should just think we have a cool ship, right? But they already saw me phase through the ice.”

“I know. That's unfortunate, but let's keep everything else in reserve.”

“Well, unless this guy is ready to tell us what 'doom' is, I think this whole bug mission is at a dead end anyway.”

Psion found it increasingly difficult to argue with Shockwave's position. He turned to Dave and asked, “How many people were on your ship originally?”

“More than have thus far been located.”

“How many survivors are at your site in Antarctica?

“No more than can be sustained for some time.”

“Your species does math different than ours,” Shockwave observed. “We do this thing where we count: one … two ...”

As Perdition walked by with his pile, Psion noticed an artifact had a blinking light. Psion tried to discretely scan the device without attracting too much attention. It had a small isomer power supply, and an indication of more of their three-dimensional, crystalline computing circuits surrounded by a larger coil of a phase-changed lanthanide element, not unlike a warp coil. Perhaps it was a subspace antenna coil.

“Perdition, try not to be obvious about this, but there's a box with an indicator blinking on it. Don't put it with the other equipment, isolate it and put it in my cabin.”

As the group returned to the ship, Psion conducted a careful inventory of everything brought on board.

Shockwave stepped through the cargo bay's hatch and whispered, “We've just been driving this guy around. I think we deserve to know what 'doom' means now.”

Psion picked up a metallic, roughly hexagonal apparatus and scanned it. “We do. I intend to bring this up with Dave on the way back.”

When he finished, Psion stopped off at his cabin and examined the device Perdition had left on his desk. The light continued to flash rhythmically. It's probably a distress beacon of some form, he thought to himself. But without disassembling it there's no way to be sure, and his earlier scan hadn't revealed any sign of a transmitted signal. The telepath considered holding the device back for further research, but also recognized that it was unlikely that Dave had failed to notice it. Psion had worked hard to establish a foundation of trust with the Gruber Mountain survivors and even such trivial duplicity could undermine that effort. So many different options... Which would be to the best advantage of humanity?

As he returned to the flight deck, he passed the box to Dave. “Did you notice this?”

“I did.”

“Why is it flashing,” asked Shockwave.

“It is a detection device.”

“What does it detect,” asked Psion.

“Emissions of a nature of interest to us.”

“Dave.”

“I must confer with my peers before I can answer that.”

Shockwave blew out an explosive breath of frustration. “We have this thing on Earth where we do you a favor and then you do us a favor. We give you a ride to pick up your dead friend slash dinner and you tell us what 'doom' is.”

Behind his helmet's visor, Psion couldn’t help but smile. For all her provincial perspectives, he couldn't help but agree with Shockwave's point. “Dave. We mean you no harm.”

“The insect looked from Psion to Shockwave and the voice emitted from its amulet said, “I understand and wish to honor reciprocity. But I must first confer with my peers.”

“Hive mentality,” observed Perdition.

“But it's not a natural hive mentality,” said Shockwave. “It's a political hive mentality.”

Psion tried to explain the team's perspective one last time, “Dave, we are concerned for the welfare of this entire planet – Every life form on it, including yours. Bring back to your nest the fact that your interests coincide with yours and we need to know certain pieces of information. We are more than happy to continue to provide you with the assistance that you need to survive. And we will do our best to see to it that you are made as comfortable as possible while you're on this planet. Eventually, we'll try to get you back to your home planet, if that's where you'd like to go. But at the same time, we need to know what's going on out there. We're willing to share information that we have acquired on the state of interstellar politics and dynamics that you might not be aware of.”

“Your assistance and desire for cooperation are appreciated.”

“I'm going to have to take that statement at face value. You have proven to be extremely evasive and while I understand that and don't hold it against you, my peers, however, are getting frustrated. They are, perhaps, more emotional than I am. But I can also understand their perspective as well. We're worried. Something is going on and we need to know what it is as quickly as possible so we can prepare a response. These delays that your people present in sharing knowledge are delays that could cost all of us our existence.”

“I will relay your communications to the Nest.”

“Thank you.”

“And confer with them regarding answers to the questions you have posed.”

'I believe that intelligent life shares, if nothing else, the commonality of being self-aware. And I celebrate that.”

“Is this a widely-held belief among your kind.”

Shockwave shook her head. “No.”

“No, it isn't widely-held, but I'm not the only one who holds it. And everyone in this ship shares that opinion as well.” Psion regarded the alien carefully. “We're not going to tell the rest of our kind about your existence. That would be dangerous for you. But there may be agencies we can turn to that will remain discrete about your existence and help you live here. And learn from you, too.”

“We will speak again. Also be aware that it will benefit our future cooperation if you seek to achieve consensus on how to proceed among your group as well.”

Over the switchboard, Shockwave reacted. “What's that supposed to mean?”

Psion, however, continued the discussion. “Are you aware of any other landing areas that might have survivors?”

“I'm not currently able to convey such information.”

“Get back in touch with us. We have other missions to undertake. Let us know when you are ready to continue.”

“We will contact you again.”

As they left Dave behind with his fellow nest mates in the Gruber Mountains, Shockwave repeated her earlier question, “What did he mean by consensus?”

Psion grinned. “I propose the problem is that we are each individually dealing with Dave separately. Each with an apparently unique agenda. That's alien to Dave.”

“We are not a hive mind.”

“No we're not. And that's okay. We just learned something about them from that request. In the future when we deal with them--”

“No,” Shockwave interrupted, “I'm not going to sit there and be quiet while you have civilized conversation and he dances around questions.”

“The other possibility is I'll sit quietly while you have the dialog.”

“Then that'll go well. If he gives up answers we'll respect his race. ”

Psion crossed his arms. “You are judging Dave's culture by your own values.”

“Yes I am.”

“I'd like to point out that that could increase tensions between Species 2001a and ourselves.”

“No, increased tensions are going to continue to happen until they tell us what 'doom' is.”

“That's something that we want. It's possible Dave might know something about ‘doom’ that in its mind might prejudice us against Species 2001a. If, for example, Dave's group are escaped slaves and that's related to the doom mystery, there's a chance none of them want us to know about that.”

“We'll respect his requests when he requests ours. We've been nice twice.”

Perdition kept his opinion simple. “We can't force them.”

“I'm not saying force them. We stop doing them favors until they actually reciprocate.”

Psion looked at her. “And to you, the only reciprocation you'll consider sufficient is a full disclosure on the nature of 'doom'?”

“Yes. The stuff that affects us, I believe we have a right to know.”


The Team Returned to the Firehawk and a Hurricane Threatened New Orleans

As they disembarked from the PsiPlane, Perdition held Psion back for a private conversation. “I agree with you. We cannot force them. I don't see the need to get tough.”

“Shockwave is not advocating that we get tough. She wants them to trust us and give us the information we need.”

“We have done them a favor. We shall see.”

“And they have done us a small favor. They have given us samples of higher technology that we can reverse-engineer and put to use on this planet. I'll confess that I understand Dave's motivations. It isn't willing to do anything without the approval of its kind. Furthermore, Dave has no idea whether we can be trusted. Our inability to act with consensus must be completely alien to Dave's species.”

As they strode into the Mission Ops room, they found Shockwave and Starfire looking at one display showing a satellite view of a hurricane heading towards the Gulf coast of the United States. And while a category 3 hurricane wasn't necessarily a terrible threat, the fact that it was headed towards New Orleans, a city already below sea level, caused both Shockwave and Starfire to become alarmed.


Hurricane Katrina vs. System 4ce

Psion skimmed the PsiPlane over the highest clouds of the storm's cyclonic formation at multiple mach speeds. Contrasting a deep blue sky, the cloudscape below shown in brilliant patches of white against a dark gray interior. The tight eye of the hurricane swept by in moments and soon the craft descended into the clouds and mounting winds. Hale and thick sheets of water buffeted the windscreen, forcing Psion to reduce velocity, but they soon broke out into sunshine again, racing ahead of the dangerous weather with the coast of Louisiana stretched out before them. The storm would hit in less than twenty-four hours.

Super powers are nearly useless against a storm itself. Even the energies Starfire could harness were minuscule in comparison to those contained in Hurricane Katrina. Psion briefly contemplated bombarding the winds with debris moving at relativistic velocities. His cursory consideration of the math indicated that he could slow or even halt the winds with such a barrage, but only with the release of lethal levels of gamma radiation. No, it was better to just let the storm hit, and help manage the destruction at a smaller scale.

Shockwave and Starfire worked with locals to fill sandbags and prepare for wind damage while Perdition and Psion worked from the PsiPlane to help move supplies.

By morning, the storm hit. Winds in excess of ninety miles per hour ripped through the sky, dragging torrents of rain nearly horizontally across the city. That's when it became clear that the weakening storm itself wasn't the threat so much as the surge of water driven by the storm's low pressure and high winds. Soon, the team fought a grueling battle against weakening infrastructure as waterlogged levees began failing along the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Psion tried to stay ahead of the problem using the sophisticated sensors and computers aboard the PsiPlane to predict failure points, but more than once he was forced to use the vehicle itself to dam some levee breaches until Starfire and Shockwave could fill in the gaps with a fusillade of sandbags.

By the time the worst of the storm had past, it was difficult for System 4ce to see the good of their efforts. Water from the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain still worked its way through minor breaches and large areas of the city had been flooded. Dozens of people were missing or dead, and it would be weeks before the city would return to normal.


Psion Peeked into the Amber Helmet

Tired, sore, hungry. The super humans dragged themselves back to the Firehawk for well-earned rest. Even the PsiPlane was covered in mud with weeds and other debris trapped in grills and on the wings. As they disembarked, Psion and Shockwave headed over to the neighboring helicopter hangar to check on progress with the Amber Helmet. No amber had yet been added, but the basic structure rested on a four-foot high scaffold, and some of the cryptic symbols had been applied to the interior. Shockwave waved a disappointed hand at it and left in pursuit of a hot shower and meal, but Psion couldn't resist the temptation.

Under the scaffold, Psion straightened to his full height, standing up through the hole in the false floor of the model. With none of the usual chatter from the likes of Zap or Shockwave to distract him, he found the isolation relaxing. If nothing else, the model might make a pleasant meditation chamber with a few alterations. Oddly, the symbols suddenly seemed to make a bit more sense than before, and the telepath began to wonder if Leibniz might have been on to something. A moment of inspiration struck him, and he left the hangar to build … a model of the model in a virtual reality environment.


Shockwave Went to Germany and England to Look For Cinematic Settings for an Amber Room

After resting, Shockwave began thinking about the Amber Room. Was there some way to predict where The Auteur might be building it? Were there optimal psychic … focal points where the room would perform better? Or … considering the Auteur's tendencies, were there cinematic locations to put it? She dropped by Psion's quarters just long enough to borrow one of Psion's psicorders and get a brief introduction to using it to scan for things like concentrations of amber and psychic fields, then left to pursue her own investigation.


Perdition Visited the Ascended Masters to Discuss the Man With the Green Gloves

Having finished showing Shockwave how to use the psicorder, Psion returned to the computer showing the first sections of his model for a virtual reality version of the Amber Room. With luck, he'd have it substantially completed by the end of the day and then tweak it as necessary to enhance the realism of various components.

But a knock again interrupted his concentration and he rose to answer it. Perdition stood in the corridor as crewmen bustled past behind him. “Can you give me a lift to Nepal?”

Psion groaned inwardly. He'd built the PsiPlane to explore the galaxy … and beyond. To dip into the photosphere of stars and trace eddies through nebulae. But increasingly, the vehicles' enormous speed made it especially useful to the team as a means to get anywhere on the planet quickly. More and more, it was becoming a System 4ce resource and not just his personal craft. A few brief thoughts about single-stage, suborbital rockets that could fulfill a similar role crossed his mind just then and got filed away for future consideration. “What's in Nepal?”

“I need to speak with the Ascended Masters.”

“And they don't have a phone?”

Perdition raised a sardonic eyebrow and didn't respond.

“No, I didn't think so. Alright. Let me shut down here and meet me on the flight deck in half an hour.”

An hour later, the PsiPlane hung over a snowy mountain-scape as Perdition lowered himself from it to the doors of a precariously situated monastary that clung to the side of one of the mountains of the Himalayas. He announced himself at the entrance and was led past prayer wheels to a chamber deep within the ancient structure. There, the Ascended Masters sat on bamboo mats in air thick with incense.

He respectfully informed them of the encounter System 4ce had recently had with the Man with the Green Gloves and sought their guidance.

“He is an aspect of Agartha. There are choices that souls make throughout life to follow the left or right hand path … each a tao. The Man with Green Gloves is a guide. A reflection of ourselves. Tradition says Shamballah nudges the world toward the path of positive enlightenment, guiding it from self-destruction and the left-hand path. The Man with Green Gloves does not force anyone onto the path of evil, but when one has chosen the left-hand path, provides guidance along that path. He seeks not to direct the path of an individual or the world, but helps it seek its own level. Following him is frequently associated with the follower believing he has found the route to his desires, only to find ruin. Perhaps that is what one desires. Thus, the Man with Green Gloves can be a source of enlightenment if one can prudently accept his guidance.”

How Perdition Became a Member of System 4ce

System 4ce received a notification from the White House asking to meet with representatives of the State Department and the Department of Defense to discuss the situation in Iraq. Psion presented the facts of the situation in Mission Ops, flipping through several displays of background details. “Three months ago, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq, giving the President of the United States the authority to use… quote any means necessary unquote, in the enforcement of outstanding United Nations resolutions. Two months ago, a United Nations resolution authorized the resumption of weapons inspections and promised … quote serious consequences for non-compliance unquote.”

Shockwave wasted no time expressing her displeasure. “I do not want to fight for Dubya in Iraq.”

Starfire rubbed his chin and shook his head. “I don't think they want us to go in there. I think they want us to stay out. This is about a show of U.S. Military force and the last thing they want is us showing off or looking over their shoulders.”

“Either way, I don't think I should go.”

Psion looked at Starfire. “She's probably too subversive.”

Starfire agreed. “She's … a bit of a loose cannon.”

Shockwave folded her arms. “Alright, I'm going.”

Psion turned his attention to Perdition. “Which brings us to you.”

“The American Patrol used to do this kind of thing all the time.”

“Starfire here is a recognized member of System 4ce. Even though he's from a parallel universe, he's been with our organization for years. Perdition has not, and I think this needs to be addressed.”

Starfire nodded. “Yep.”

“I'd like,” Psion continued, “to announce that Perdition is the newest member of System 4ce if no one else objects.”

“I'd like to join.”

Psion smiled broadly. “Outstanding. Now, about this business with the White House...”


System 4ce Called to Brief the White House on Iraq

The PsiPlane set down on a small pad at Dover Air Force Base, its birdlike rear landing legs gently taking the full weight of the vehicle until it was perched safely in place. The port airlock opened, and Perdition, Psion, Shockwave, and Starfire descended the ladder and were met by two men in suits. One extended his hand and Psion shook it, amused at the gesture. “Brad Matthews, Department of Defense” He indicated the other man, “Carl Davis, State Department.”

Psion nodded acknowledgement. “I think you know each of us. Perdition here is our newest member.”

Matthews nodded “We've anticipated this move given his extended operations with your organization.”

The group retreated in sedans to a nearby administrative conference room where the meeting continued. “The reason we've asked you to be here today,” Matthews explained, “is as part of our basic fact-checking in preparation for Secretary Powell's planned address to the United Nations. We're engaged in going over some of the points that Secretary Powell will be making and confirming the extent that those conform to or contradict your own observations and experiences. You must keep in mind, of course, that there are security issues involving some of the intelligence information we will be sharing with you. No sources and methods will be divulged. To the extent that you have questions about those, be advised that we are not in a position to answer.

“I thought we'd begin, so as to not prejudice your own responses to us, by inquiring with you as to the extent of your own observations and operations in the general area of the Middle East, say in the past five years.”

Perdition quietly considered some of the clandestine operations he'd been involved with along with Shockwave and Anastasia. There were the observations he'd participated in back in 2001, involving the then largely unknown Osama bin Laden, who had been contacted by Doctor Medusa in an attempt to purchase “Red Mercury”. Bin Laden had apparently been trying to scam her, seeking to give useless materials in exchange for her money. No one had informed the United States government of bin Laden's presence there, not that anyone would have been surprised to learn he was hiding in Afghanistan.

Shockwave similarly recalled her experiences in Kurdistan on a mission to rescue women from Iraqi Al-Qaeda forces who were planning to execute them for having gone to school. There had been some biological and chemical weapons equipment on that site, as well as video of The Man with Green Gloves, but she certainly didn't want to talk about any of that operation, especially since she didn't want Psion and Starfire to know that it had occurred. Like Perdition, Shockwave chose to remain silent.

For his part, Psion shared the data he'd been collecting on the hafnium-isomer explosives and their construction.

Carl Davis listened to Psion's dissertation on the design, construction, and operating principles of hafnium-isomer weapons with strained interest, but eventually said, “We appreciate the information you're sharing with us regarding the bomb issue and the possible connection to the Trade Center, but that's a bit far afield from what we're specifically looking for in the Middle East at the moment. Besides, of course, the materials that you discovered there.”

“Well, the materials, the power generation facilities, and the collusion of certain local authorities in Pakistan and Kazakistan.”

Matthews said, “I'm sure others in DOD, and perhaps the defense intelligence establishments, would like to discuss your investigation of the hafnium bombs at greater length. Our purpose today, however, is specifically in support of Secretary Powell's U.N. address. Your findings in Pakistan are certainly relevant to that and we will make note of them, but we'd like to focus on the geographic area of Iraq.”

Psion nodded and looked around at the rest of the team. “Have we done anything else in that area?”

Shockwave shook her head vigorously, “Nope. Nothing.”

Davis looked like he hoped for more but said, “Very well, then. Now, we have information to share with you that will be embodied in Secretary Powell's address to the United Nations, and we'd like your feedback on any of this as regards whether you can confirm or deny any of it – offer corroborating or contrary information about any of these items before his presentation.”

Starfire discretely tapped his head while looking at Psion, and the telepath erected a mental switchboard with the team. “Maybe,” Starfire said over it, “we should offer to look at any positions they need to have intel about. We can go anywhere. By the way, that tie-tack on Matthews is a camera.”

Psion paused a moment, then said aloud, “Mr. Davis, Mr. Matthews, if you need it, we can covertly penetrate any site quickly. We can accomplish small missions, collect information, and no one will ever know we were there.”

The two bureaucrats looked at each other and Davis pointed out that they couldn't authorize any such activity.

“Perhaps,” the telepath offered, “the optimal solution to this is to encourage Saddam to withdraw from power in Iraq as quickly as possible. If we can do anything to undermine his position...”

Over the switchboard a debate erupted. Starfire said, “Just tell me to go get him, I'll go get Saddam and bring him back here.”

“Hold on a second,” Psion thought. “You want to demonstrate to these guys that you can go in, depose the leader of a foreign power single-handedly, and deliver him to whoever you think you should?”

Perdition caught on to Psion's worry, “But then they wonder what prevents us from doing that to them.”

“Right! We need to tread lightly here. If we don't, they're going to actively start contingency plans for dealing with us.”

Shockwave said, “I'd rather go check out their suspected WMDs and confirm or deny.”

“I want them to think of us a great intelligence sources rather than gods. We're gods, but --”

Starfire asked, “You're telling me you don't think they haven't already thought about contingency plans against us?”

“I'm sure they have, but the more we demonstrate the willingness to do stuff like that, the more they're going to feel like they need to be ready for us.”

“I'm positive they already thought about that.”

Perdition suggested, “What if we did something to drive Hussein crazy?”

But again Psion resisted, “The problem with doing that is that these guys here will know that we did that. Maybe if we could go in and talk Hussein out of power by proving to him that his best choice is to step down, then we'd be okay, but even that might worry people in this government and others. And even then, there'd still be a power vacuum and other members of the Ba'ath party would just take his place. Maybe the best thing would be for U.S. forces to go in there, take control, restore order, and then quietly withdraw after two or three years.”

“That's just crazy talk,” said Shockwave.

By now Matthews and Davis had noticed the conversation had dropped off as their guests seemed to keep looking back and forth at each other. Shockwave realized their behavior was suspicious and asked, “Um … do you guys have any donuts?”

Davis suddenly looked around awkwardly. “Oh! Of course.” He gestured to a guard at the door who promptly brought in a cart with snacks, soft drinks, and bottled water.

That diversion gave the team plenty of time to continue their argument over the switchboard. Psion and Shockwave wanted to offer a simple recon mission into Iraq to search for WMDs. But Starfire persisted, “I just want to cut to the chase. If we give them the truth about WMDs, they can still withhold the truth. Then it'll be us against them. So why don't we just cut to the chase and be like, 'Look, if you want us to destablize Iraq, we'll just go do it.'”

Psion had to fight to keep from letting his jaw drop open. “Were you not listening?! I don't want us seen doing that! That's going to make these people and the people on the other side of that camera very nervous.”

Shockwave said, “I hate to say it, but I agree with Psion. Because if you want to destabilize Iraq, I'm right there. It sounds like fun. But I don't want them to think they can ask us to do stuff like that.”

Psion turned to the two men and told them, “At the very least, we will look into the weapons of mass destruction issue in Iraq. I can provide you with full data and analysis of likely facilities in that area. Can you help me narrow down the areas where you think weapons of mass destruction might be?”

Matthews and Davis looked at each other uncomfortably and then Matthews started to say, “If I've been unclear in our purpose here for this meeting—

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Shockwave cut in. “You want plausible deniability. You don't want to say that it's okay for us to do that. Or ask us to do that, that's fine. But if you're going to start a war, don't you want to know if there are actually WMDs there?”

Psion added, “We normally prefer to stay out of normal human political affairs. Our main concern is protecting human populations from extra-normal forces that might be dangerous. We go out to fight the super-villains and we leave you run your own governments and we're happy with that. However, we also understand that there are times of great stress and calamity when perhaps, relying on us might help avert suffering. This is an off-the-record meeting as far as we're concerned.”

“Of course. But understand that neither of us came here today with any authority to request any such thing of you or with any thought that you would offer it.”

Frustrated, Psion dropped his restraint and reached out to read the surface thoughts of Matthews' mind. The Department of Defense man seemed flustered and in over his head. It was clear that he'd come in to verify the information to be used in Powell's address, but hadn't expected the group to be willing to take such an active approach. But as Psion read these thoughts, he soon became aware that while Matthews was on the Department of Defense payroll, he wasn't with the DOD. He was with the NSA. A face also flashed through his thoughts along with the name, “Mr. Trent.”

Psion sat back and regarded the two men and his teammates. Finally he said, “Mr. Matthews, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put you in a bad position here. The simple fact is that we are continuing to research the whole hafnium-isomer explosive situation and we will extend our investigation to cover some of the areas that are of possible use to you. If we happen to come across any information that could be useful before or after Mr. Powell's address, I will make sure that your organizations are kept informed.”

At the conclusion of that statement, Psion, still reading Matthews' mind, suddenly heard through his ears, a male voice say, “Hold on, hold on, dammit! Don't just let 'em walk out on that. Feel them out!”

The effect startled Psion, who puzzled about it for a few moments until he realized it must have been achieved with intersecting beams of focused sound waves, effectively constructing the words directly on or within in Matthew's ears.

A smile crossed the telepath's lips and he rose to leave. “So, it was a very productive meeting, I thank you for your time, but we have an important engagement at Saturn, so --”

Now it was time for Matthews to backpedal. “Don't misunderstand me, having expressed an interest in looking for corroborative evidence in this case, I'd like to be able to talk to the people in position who should know this. Would you be willing to assist us in sharing information if we shared information with you… or if we shared a lack of information with you, could you potentially help us corroborate our intelligence? Perhaps help us confirm or lay to rest certain suspicions…”

Starfire said, “As long as you make it clear that regarding what we find – the truth will be the truth.”

Psion added, “Mr. Matthews, Mr. Davis… System 4ce, and before that System Four and even the Adventurers of America, had a productive relationship with the United States government and I'd like to perpetuate that. The United States of America stand as a considerable force for good, and we'd like to support that. While it's important to us that normal human politics remain in the hands of normal humans, you should know that there are times when we'd be willing to work with your organizations on a contractor basis.”

“So you're saying you'd be interested in performing paid services for us?”

“I'm simply letting you know that in the future if there are other things that you require, we'd be willing to consider that in the same way that we contract our services in support of scientific investigations in dealing with oceanography, climatology, astronautics, etc. System 4ce maintains a vast spectrum of support services for scientific investigation. There is no reason we can't, perhaps on a low-key basis, provide similar services for the U.S.”

Perdition explained, “We do have a need to pay for our personnel, fuel for our ship … we have expenses.”

Matthews brought the discussion back to current System 4ce activities. “So you're currently following up on the hafnium explosives?”

Psion answered, “We have a number of ongoing investigations. The hafnium isomers are one. Another is an ongoing analysis of the Algolian Space Vampire threat...”

And again, Psion heard Trent's voice through Matthews' ears say, with perhaps a slightly sarcastic tone, “Yeah, the vampires. Keep 'em focused on that!”

Starfire looked around the table, “So they don't want us looking. They want us distracted. Cause they want to start a war.”


Shockwave Finally Revealed her Private Mission in Iraq to the Rest of System 4ce

Shockwave said to Perdition on the way back to the Firehawk, “We have to show them the tapes of the Man with Green Gloves.”

Psion turned to the pair and asked, “What's going on?”

“We've acquired some videotapes of the Green Gloved dude.”

“Excellent! Where did they come from?”

“I occasionally run politically-sensitive rescue missions on the side. In this case there some women who were going to be killed for going to school.”

“Why didn't you tell me about this? It sounds like a humanitarian mission.”

“Yeah, pretty much. But there was a military presence and when we went in, we … quieted them.”

“Oh.”

“Um … were you seen?”

“No. I don't go as Shockwave.”

“Also, these sorts of things should be entered into mission logs so we can review them later for analysis, training, intelligence, etc.”

“Yeah, that's not going to happen, but here are the tapes.”

“Well, we all have our little hobbies.”


Zap Told the Team the Location of Trent's Office

Back on the ship, Zap strolled in during the discussion and announced that he had secretly tagged along and infiltrated the base's electrical systems. He overheard the discussions and noticed the sound projectors talking to Mr. Matthews. He traced their transmissions through the telecom net all the way to the NSA offices in Fort Meade.

Starfire insisted on confronting Trent directly. “Like I'm saying, if we're going to play this game, I'd rather play it with one adversary, or one potential adversary close to me, than it just be a wild card where anybody can hit us from any direction.” Shockwave agreed. Psion told them that if the team did this, he'd keep himself and the PsiPlane a half-mile away, although he'd give Shockwave or Starfire one of his psicorders so he could covertly attend.


A Supervillain Attack on an Amber Jewelry Manufacturer

As the planning to visit Mr. Trent concluded, an alert sounded in the Firehawk’s conference room. Apparently a supervillain attack was in progress in Gdansk, Poland, focused on a warehouse owned by a company called “Progress, Ltd.” – a leading amber jewelry manufacturer.

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