“Mmm, those pecs,” Sheryl said, licking her lips. Ramona and the others giggled. Ramona relished her weekly lunches with her friends on the Echo campus. Although they stared and giggled like schoolgirls, their jobs were anything but whimsical. Sheryl studied psychopathic behavior among metahumans. Denise worked in the infirmary, though her skillset would have placed her in any emergency room in the country. Midori worked in weapons tech.
To accommodate all their schedules, they met in midafternoon. Many lunches ended prematurely when a cell phone rang.
“If my husband knew how many of these metas were studs, he’d make me resign,” Midori said.
“And lose that paycheck?” Denise snorted. “Not likely. Just buy him a cape and a mask for a ‘fantasy night.’ ” The table erupted in laughter, drawing a glance from Mercurye himself. That got them laughing even harder.
“Oh, Jesus,” Sheryl said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I needed that. So, Ramona: got any good cases right now?”
“Hmm.” Ramona poured more sugar in her coffee. “We just wrapped up that kidnapping case, the three kids. Turns out the perp was just a kook in a mask. I had Shahkti set up to drill him, but Atlanta PD took over.” She shrugged.
“Well, she missed having to fill out hundred-page reports about the incident, to steer clear of the Extreme Force law.” Sheryl made a face. “Then again, she could just tie him up in spider webbing…splat!” The other girls snickered.
“Webbing?” Ramona furrowed her brow. “She can do that?”
Sheryl waved her arms like a giant bug. “Probably. Doesn’t she creep you out?”
“Her extra arms? You get used to it.” Ramona thought back to the cases she’d worked with the four-armed Indian metahuman. “What’s creepy is how dour she is. Does she even know how to smile?”
A man wearing a pair of elaborate metal gauntlets and stars-and-stripes epaulets entered the cafeteria. Yankee Pride spotted Ramona’s table and strode towards them purposefully. Ramona stared at him blankly for a moment, then her stomach lurched. She’d forgotten the prisoner interview he’d scheduled. She scrambled to dig through her briefcase for the paperwork.
“Ladies,” he drawled, inclining his head with a polite smile. The son of war heroes Yankee Doodle and Dixie Belle was said to power his energy gauntlet through a reservoir of internal energy. Somehow he didn’t have the aura of intimidation that most metahumans gave off unintentionally.
“Well hello, tall, dark and patriotic,” she said, still fishing for the paperwork. “I was just reviewing the file on that perp…”
“Were you?” He grinned at her.
She came up empty-handed. “No. I spaced it.”
Yankee Pride pulled up a chair to the table. “We have a minute now. You gonna eat that pickle?” He pointed to Midori’s plate. She chuckled and pushed it towards him.
Ramona brought her briefcase up to her lap to leaf through the papers. The file was buried by reports, dossiers, faxes and notepads.
“ ‘Heinrich Eisenhauer.’ Any relation to Dwight D.? I’m kidding.”
“He referred to himself as ‘Eisenfaust.’ German for ‘The Iron Fist.’ ” He shrugged. “I looked it up in Pop’s old papers, then online. Plenty of material on this guy from the historical sites.”
Ramona found the printout of the online article. “Nice detective work. What do you need me for?”
“Look at the dates, Detective.”
She bristled for a moment until she realized he used her title with respect, not sarcasm. “Hey.” She blinked at the printout. “This says he died over the Atlantic. The Bermuda Triangle.”
“Fighting the Allied Aces, right. Which makes our friend over in the security facility a liar or a science fiction novel come to life.”
“Occam’s Razor,” she said, making a cutting motion with one hand. “The simplest explanation is probably the best.”
“Sure, but the man’s a meta. I watched the security tapes. He moves like greased lightning.” Yankee Pride favored the women at the table with a meaningful look. “That changes everything.”
“You bet,” Sheryl said, nodding gravely. “Can I see?”
Ramona handed her the file. Sheryl moved her lips silently as she read the dossier, incident report and Yankee Pride’s research. Her shoulders hunched as if she were trying to force herself into the pages.
“He certainly believes he’s Eisenfaust,” she said in a small voice. The rest of the table leaned forward to hear her. “Bring a shrink.”
“Already reserved a slot in Doc Bootstrap’s schedule.” Yankee Pride winked at her. “Good to know I can still research.”
“Oh, please.” She returned the file to him, but he passed it right to Ramona.
“She’s got a little reading to do. Thirty minutes, Detective.” The seriousness returned to his demeanor. Did he think Ramona would find something he and Sheryl had missed?
Ramona sighed. “I’ll be ready,” she said, giving in to her own weaknesses and lighting up another cigarette, despite the cafeteria signs.
* * *
“He was my great-uncle,” Alex Tesla said with infinite patience. “My father knew him as a teenager.”
Framed by the gigantic plasma TV screen, the CEO of Computrex had reverted to giggling adolescence. “He knew Nikola Tesla? Are the stories true? He was building a death ray for the Army?”
“Uncle—er, Great-Uncle Tesla experimented on a wide variety of inventions, peaceful and otherwise. Some do lend themselves to lurid speculation. The Pentagon never provided him funding for any of his wartime projects.”
The man was undaunted. “So there is a Tesla death ray?”
“Really?” The CEO, a mousy man with an ill-advised goatee grown to hide a double chin, lit up in excitement. “Does Echo have the prototype?”
“I’m teasing you, Mr. Faber. Echo Industries focuses on the peaceful applications of my great-uncle’s work in broadcast energy.” He smiled into the video camera. “Wouldn’t you say there are enough weapons in the world already?”
“I suppose.” Faber was unappeased. “What about antigravity? They say that—”
“Trust me, if we had antigravity technology, you and I would not be discussing broadcast power sourcing to server farms. I’d be selling flying cars and floating cities to Arab sheiks.”
Faber laughed thinly at the quip. Reality never fails to disappoint, Tesla thought.
Yet ever since Echo was founded in the 1950’s by his father, Andro Tesla, Echo had used their metahuman law enforcement contractors—what amounted to a private army—to maintain public goodwill towards the alternate energy source that had made Nikola Tesla famous.
When Alex took over in the 1980’s, he hoped that the oil shortages would spur acceptance of broadcast energy for automobiles. Yet the oil companies would not be beaten easily; their network of purchased politicians pushed laws to limit the uses of broadcast energy sources “pending further study.”
Ultimately the legend surrounding Nikola Tesla caught the imagination of technology industry entrepreneurs who sought any shortcut to market saturation. Restrictions were loosened, awkward young multimillionaires like Gerald Faber requested meetings with Alex, and inroads were made.
“In all seriousness, though, you might be interested in our Industry Leader Retreats, which we offer to our best customers. A week touring Echo facilities, viewing the latest research, meeting the operatives—”
“I can hang out with the superpowered metas?”
Alex hoped his smile hid the hunter’s sense of triumph he felt. “The Echo Ops are common at any Echo campus. You’ll surely become accustomed to them, as we have.”
“What’s that cost?” Faber’s faced loomed in the plasma screen, eager as an amateur porn actor.
“It’s provided as a courtesy to our elite customers. Why don’t we review the prospectus—”
A gentle buzz tickled his wrist in an alternating sequence of short and long bursts. He jerked erect.
“Mr. Faber, I fear something has come up that requires my immediate attention.” He paused. “Something urgent involving our Atlanta metas. Can we continue this conversation at your earliest convenience?”
Without waiting for a confirmation, he waved his assistant forward. Planner in hand, the young man took Alex’s seat as he raced out of the room.
Alex all but ran back to his office. Kim held up a sheaf of faxes and letters but he cut her off with a gesture. “Hold my calls,” he said, disappearing into his office. He ignored his desk, walking up to the bookcase and tugging at Bullfinch’s Mythology. The book tilted forward with a click. The bookcase swung into the wall to reveal a narrow, dark, spiral staircase. He gripped the rail as he vaulted down the stairs three at a time, descending ten stories and down into the ground.
The small room at the foot of the stairs was lit only by the glow emanating from the panels of sleek machinery attached to the walls. In the center of the room, four coils mounted on posts sparked and hummed. Before the square they formed was a wooden chair; a helmet bristling with wires and antennae hung from the seatback.
Alex flipped a few switches: the coils came to life, coruscating electricity between them, a four-cornered Tesla coil of a design unknown to the outside world. The tangy taste of ozone permeated the dank room.
Alex scooted the chair back a foot and sat. The helmet flattened his electrically excited hair. When he closed a circuit on the helmet, the intermittent shapes filled the air and took on a recognizable form.
“I’m here, Uncle,” Alex said.
His soul contained in a matrix of neutrons, the entity that had been Nikola Tesla took a moment to process the visual data fed him by the machines in the tiny, hidden room. A speaker converted electrical impulses into sound.
“Alex. We must talk, you and I, about your guest, this Eisenfaust.”
* * *
The bookcase opened and shut behind him. Head bowed, Alex mused on his great-uncle’s words. For Nikola to call so abruptly could only mean that the man—if he could still be called that—regarded the matter of Eisenfaust with enormous concern. He needed to talk to Yankee Pride, whose suspicions had been triggered enough to send a message to Metis, to Uncle Tesla—
“Oops, chief. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Alex started. Doc Bootstrap stood by his desk, arranging a set of syringes, as casual as a bartender.
Alex glanced back at the bookcase. “I thought I’d locked the office door.”
“You did. Kim let me in.” Doc Bootstrap nodded at the closed door. “Nice bookcase. When do I get one?”
“Ah…” Alex hesitated. “Executive washroom. Leftover from my father’s time.” He waved a hand in front of his nose. “You don’t want to go in there right now.”
Doc held a syringe up to the light. “I hoped to catch you before I had to sit in on the Eisenfaust interview.” An odd expression crossed the man’s face—half worry, half triumph.
“Eisenfaust. Yes. Um…Yankee Pride gave me a quick rundown. What do you think? Is he the real thing?”
Doc Bootstrap shrugged. “Are you asking me if a man who disappeared in 1945 can waltz into our laps as if sixty years hadn’t passed?”
“I guess,” Alex said, chuckling.
The psychiatrist patted his syringes. “We’ll find out his side of the story in a few minutes. I can tell you this, though.” A grin widened on his face until it was a rictus.
He lunged forward and jabbed the syringe into Alex’s neck.
Alex staggered back. He hadn’t even seen the man move. Numbness spread from the injection through his throat, so that he couldn’t speak. His hands clawed at the syringe; he fell across his desk. Paperwork fluttered to the floor.
Doc Bootstrap loomed over him. The room began to spin, and it seemed to Alex that the doctor’s features softened as though his bones shifted.
“You hold our old friend, the real Eisenfaust, in your pathetic cellblock, Amerikaner.” Doc Bootstrap’s accent had shifted from a gruff Midwestern twang to a clipped Germanic. “I could kill him myself, but it is not my place. My superiors will be here shortly to exact revenge on the traitor.” He patted Alex’s cheek. “Nor will I kill you. Better for you to live as we burn your little army and your city in a ring of cleansing fire. The Thule Society wants you to live on to experience your humiliation in the eyes of the world.”
The doctor rolled up his syringes. “Now, I have an appointment to keep. I would ask Kim to look in on you, but I had to snap her neck to get your key.”
He rolled up his sleeve. A small metal device on his arm blinked red and green. Doc Bootstrap pressed it: the red vanished, leaving the green light.
“We’ll meet again, Alex Tesla. I can become anyone, male or female. Your mother, your lover, your best friend, your doctor. You’ll never know it’s me until you feel my breath on your neck. I love—absolutely love—that moment of realization. It is the thing I treasure most in this world. You will live long enough to see my face change. Then, and only then, will the Doppelgaenger take your life.”
Alex’s eyes rolled up into his head and he slumped over.
Mercedes Lackey, Steve Libby, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee
Such an ordinary day. All over the world, literally, people who would never have reason to know each other, much less end up as tight as we were, were going about their lives, some of them on opposite sides of the law. Then at eleven-thirty Eastern Standard Time, the world as we knew it changed forever. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA: Callsign Belladonna Blue
The station had been blessedly quiet for hours. Most of the guys were in front of the tube, watching the pre-pre-pregame shows for the All-Star game. Her cell phone went off. She glanced at it. Mom. Huh, odd, this was the time their shift started. Usually she and Dad were hot on some project at Alienville at this point in the day. She answered it. “Hi Mom, what—”
The sounds coming over the phone stopped her heart. Screaming. Explosions. Someone—it sounded like Dad—yelling. “In the shelter! Now! Go, go, go!”
And her Mom’s voice, shaking, saying only “Red alert. Lockdown.”
Then the phone went dead.
Then the Klaxons in the station went off.
All hell broke loose right outside.
Inside the fire station, no one paid any attention to the frantic mustering Klaxons signaling the callout of all possible personnel. It didn’t matter. They couldn’t have gotten there anyway. Bella crouched in the door that had opened automatically for the engines to move out, and stared in horror.
There were nine-foot-tall suits of chrome-plated armor, hosing down the street outside with the energy cannons built into their arms.
It looked like there were about twenty of them; one of them was all black, but the rest of them gleamed in the harsh Vegas sunlight like something right out of one of the city’s stage shows. Except that things out of stage shows didn’t explode cars and chase screaming civvies and—