In Service to a Goddess,
Book Four

Copyrightę2003 by Ed Howdershelt
ISBN 1-932693-13-0

Chapter One

    In mid-September, Lab Four announced that they'd discovered what appeared to be an unrecorded asteroid almost six hundred miles wide approaching our solar system from the direction of the Orion star cluster.
    There was no panic; it was just another object to be tracked and categorized, so it was given a number and a pet name -- "Little Sheba" -- and studied in order to determine its eventual trajectory through our neighborhood.
    Lab Four, being a semi-military US facility, sent its findings up the usual chains of military and civilian command; chains wherein the findings were deftly and efficiently lost enroute because people at the top of the heap didn't want to be bothered with astronomical trivia.
    After a week of studying the asteroid, another announcement was made -- this time very quietly and completely bypassing the long chain of command -- that "Little Sheba" had been renamed "Grapeshot" because it wasn't a single solid object.
    Someone had noticed what had appeared to be cracks in the asteroid's surface. This had caused a bit of commotion because such things as surface cracks shouldn't have been discernable with the equipment in use.
    Other equipment had been aimed at the asteroid and the cracks were discovered to be gaps between huge fragments, some of which were the size of small mountains.
    A few days after that discovery -- on Friday -- Dr. Royce Carter read from the summary notes on the table in front of him and carefully delivered the final paragraph to a select group of people in a board room at the White House.
    "It has been determined that some of the objects from this debris cluster may intersect Earth's orbital path on October twenty-second."
    The assembled military and civilian honchos at the table -- none of whom wanted to comment before the President spoke on the matter -- gave Carter's last words quiet thought as the President pursed his lips, sat back in his chair, and studied a small statue of a bucking rodeo horse on a nearby table for some moments.
    "Dr. Carter," he finally said, "Would you care to rephrase that last part of your report?"
    "Sir?" asked Carter.
    The President leaned forward and slammed his palm flat on the table. He liked making such dynamic gestures; he believed they made everyone jump and listen to him, even people who thought he was a few marbles short in the smarts department.
    "Damn it, Carter!" he said, "Don't give me that wussy 'it may intersect' crap! Earth's orbit covers a helluva lot of space. You guys have hardware that could track a pissant through a cornfield in China! Is that stuff gonna hit us or not?"
    In truth, only the woman keeping the minutes of the meeting had been startled by the President's outburst. She'd been focused on her note-taking and hadn't seen the too-often used gesture coming. Again.
    With an exasperated sigh, she pondered for the umpteenth time how she might inform the President of the United States that he was a jerk without losing her job and her GS rating.
    The others tried to look appropriately impressed -- or unimpressed -- according to their real or imagined standings within the current power structure. All eyes fell on Carter.
    Carter glanced around the table, sighed, and said, "Next time I'll prepare my own report. Yes, Mr. President. We fully expect that a considerable amount of the debris will impact the Earth, but..."
    Raising a hand, the President turned to his Science Advisor and snapped, "Well? What can we do about it?"
    Shaking his head, the SA said, "Our missiles aren't up to anything like this. I think our best hope will be the Ladies."
    His verbal capitalization of the word 'Ladies' was evident in his almost reverent tone.
    The President heard that tone and his gaze narrowed tightly. He didn't care much for the 'Ladies'. They flitted around dressed like strippers and showed off all the time and when he'd called them to the White House to ask them to host a fund-raising dinner, one of them had actually laughed and flown away.
    The other one had said she never got involved in politics or religion, then she'd flown away, too, claiming there was an emergency in progress somewhere. They hadn't even waited to be dismissed.
    They weren't Christians, either, which galled him to no end. Hell, they weren't even from Earth, although they said their people came from Earth way back when. He'd also heard that they were known bisexuals and maybe even lezzies.
    No, sir; he wasn't about to let those godless lesbian superbimbos grab a nickel's worth of credit out of this situation if he could help it. There had to be another way to deal with those goddamned rocks.
    Turning to the woman who was taking notes, he said, "Phyllis. Turn that thing off and take a break."
    "You heard me. Outside. Take that stuff with you."
    Phyllis glanced around the table, then switched off her recorder and headed for the door as ordered.
    Once she was gone, the President stood up, shoved his chair back, and said firmly, "Not good enough, gentlemen. Not at all. We're the most powerful nation on Earth -- our Earth, dammit! -- and we can goddamned well come up with our own solutions to our own problems without the help of a couple of godless alien lesbians."
    "Mr. President," said Carter, "This has nothing to do with lifestyles or religion. The ladies may be able to stop or divert most or all of the more dangerous debris. We can't."
    Containing his temper, the President growled, "Your attitude really sucks, Carter. You're either with us on this or you're fired."
    His use of the word 'us' caused a number of raised eyebrows and questioning looks around the table, which the President noticed. His sharp gaze raked the people at the table.
    "That's right," he said. "I said 'us'. You're all here because I'm in charge. You forget that for one damned minute and you'll be replaced before the next minute is up."
    Carter sighed and said, "You can't fire me, sir."
    With an angry glare, the President pointed at Carter and said, "But I can make damned sure someone else fires you, and I will. I can also make you disappear until this is over. You got anything else to say, Doc?"
    The President fully expected Carter to back down and toe the line. Carter stood up, then shrugged as he spoke.
    "Yes. I'll say that making me disappear will accomplish nothing. If you'd let me complete my statement, I'd have told you that the ladies are already planning a mission to deal with the debris. This meeting wasn't a bid for your input or cooperation; it was simply a sharing of information. And now, having shared it, goodbye."
    As he'd spoken, Carter had gathered his notes into his briefcase. With a nod to those at the table, he walked out of the room.
    The President snatched up the receiver of the phone on the table and punched a button, then snapped, "Stop Dr. Carter. Hold him for questioning."
    Carter was stopped before he reached the elevator. Fifteen minutes later, Dr. Andrew Lawrence at Lab Four put down his phone and called his secretary into his office.
    "Lydia," he said, "That was General Hodge. Dr. Carter is being held incommunicado at the White House. Is either April or Sara in the building?"
    "Sara's on level three. Shall I get her on the phone?"
    "Yes, please."
    A couple of minutes later there was a quick rap on his open door and he looked up to see Sara striding into his office. She wore her uniform, a minimum of coverage that he'd always thought would have been more appropriate at a beach. His eyes traveled from her toes to her eyes as he waved her to a chair.
    After briefing her on Dr. Carter's situation as reported by Gen. Hodge, Dr. Lawrence asked, "What now, Sara?"
    "Think a phone call would help?"
    "No, not really."
    "Then we'll just have to spring him," she said. "Carter'll do more good working here than sitting on his ass in a holding tank. I'll hand a full report on the debris cloud to the media this afternoon and say that Dr. Carter's delivering a briefing at the White House and should be available for comment shortly. That ought to make that goat-roper fundy let him go."
    Gritting his teeth slightly, Lawrence said, "I do wish you wouldn't use such terms to describe the President."
    Sara chuckled.
    "Why not? We're talking about a guy who doesn't believe in evolution and you heard what he said about April and me when he visited Lab Two." Shaking her head, she laughed. "Jeez. He didn't even look to see if the camera light was still on. We should have sued him for slander."
    Lawrence stood and paced behind his desk, then leaned on it and asked, "Do you really think we should make this report public? Think of the potential for panic, please."
    She shrugged beautifully and said, "April and I are going out there, Andy, and we have almost a month to get the job done. What's the matter? Are you worried screwing up the world's weekend?"
    "Well, no, but..."
    Sweeping her blonde hair back, Sara stood up and said, "Then put together a dozen media kits, Andy. A full disclosure of the situation, our analysis, and what we're going to do about it. It's ten-thirty now. I'll be back around noon for the kits."
    With that, she flew out the door and headed back to level three. Lawrence called Lydia in to make arrangements for the media kits, then went to an early lunch at eleven.
    At two in the afternoon the President's Science Advisor held a brief, upbeat press conference in the White House press room with Dr. Carter. The President declined to attend. He claimed other pressing business required his attention, which one reporter questioningly surmised to mean that the President believed that the Earth was in no real danger.
    With a thoroughly unnecessary strip-search still fresh in his memory, Carter smiled and said, "Exactly so. The President is aware of all facts in this matter and he appears to have complete confidence in April and Sara. In fact, he said..." appearing to catch himself, Carter glanced at the Science Advisor, then shook his head with a small smile and said, "I'm sorry, everybody. Now I'm talking out of class. I'll just say that -- like so many of us -- the President has some very profound feelings concerning the ladies."
    Watching the briefing on TV, the President choked on his coffee at Carter's words and swore mightily as he envisioned unhappy phone calls from his right-wing religious cronies.
    Doris and I received word to meet April and Sara later that afternoon on the roof of the Dallas Federal building. As we rode up on the elevator, April and Sara -- who were en route from Lab Four -- mentally linked to Doris and me.
    "It's no biggie," said Sara. "Just a bunch of rocks and ice. We'll redirect the worst of it and the whole thing may only take a week if Dr. Varnemann is right about most of it being small stuff."
    "That may be a rather conservative estimate," cautioned April. "It looks like a six-hundred-mile-wide cluster of birdshot on the screens. We'll only be going after the dangerous pieces and leaving the rest to burn on atmospheric entry or pass by, but we're still talking about redirecting a helluva lot of stuff."
    "How far out is it?"
asked Doris.
    Sara answered brightly, "Oh, not far. A little beyond Pluto."
    Doris ignored Sara's flippant response and asked, "Will you be taking Ed?"
    "No," said April. "He's not quite up to extended space travel yet. Maybe next time, okay, Ed?"
    "Yeah, sure," I said. "The next time an interplanetary disaster is heading straight for us, ya'll just gimme a holler. Have your people get with my people, and like that."
    "Oh, don't pout," said April. "You'll be far more useful as a link-nexus on Earth."
    "Yeah," said Sara. "And you two won't be too worn out to help us unwind when we get back."
    Doris said, "I believe that was innuendo, Ed."
    "Hm. Could be. Kinda sounded like it, didn't it?"
    Doris unlocked the roof exit door and we stepped out of the elevator and into the hot Texas sunshine.
    "I can't help worrying," she said aloud.
    "We can't help worrying, Doris. We know that those ladies are almost indestructible, but..."
    "Yeah... 'but'. What did she mean by 'yet'?"
    I gave her a big grin and said, "You should drop by the lab more often, ma'am. Sara's lab rats think that the effects of the ladies' enhancement process may be cumulative. We get another tiny dose every time we nibble April or Sara, and they now think that using our new abilities makes them multiply, even if they'll never quite match the ladies' abilities." I sighed and added, "Oh, well; retrofits like us have to take what we can get, I guess."
    Doris grinned back at me. "Well, hell, Ed. I guess maybe I can live with that little drawback."
    Maybe ten minutes passed before two tall, stunning blondes settled to the roof next to us. My eyes lingered here and there as they reached up to straighten their hair. Sara grinned and flicked her eyebrows at me as she struck a pose. April smacked her butt.
    "I'm gonna miss you ladies," I said. "Where's your luggage?"
    "Luggage?" asked Doris.
    "Suitcase nukes," said Sara. "Twenty of them. We'll be too far out to recharge quickly with sunlight, so we'll use the nukes to blast rocks and recharge on the fly."
    April said, "We didn't want to waste energy hauling them, so we bundled them and threw them in the right direction a few days ago. Now we'll pick up a full charge near the sun, slingshot around it to build up speed without losing energy to acceleration, and we'll collect the nukes on the way."
    A long round of hugs and kisses and well-wishings later, April and Sara lifted back into the sky. A few miles above us they went hypersonic and a double clap of thunder announced the ladies' imminent departure from Earth.
    The ladies left our link open as they ascended. We saw what they saw as they streaked upward and out of the atmosphere.
    You've seen it, too, on TV and in movies; the receding Earth and the stars against the approaching blackness of space as the atmosphere thins to nothing.
    The only difference was the speed of their passage. It took the ladies less than a minute to reach near-Earth space. A fountain of thin air was dragged outward after them that slowly fell back and re-merged with the atmosphere.
    Once the ladies were in open space, they really poured on the speed. The eyes that provided Doris and me the view of space turned toward the sun and as we watched the sun seemed to grow larger by the second.
    I figured the ladies were just going to do a solar flyby, but instead they entered a low solar orbit that actually placed them within the fringes of the sun's corona. April's mental voice filled the silence of space as we watched.
    "Enjoying the view, guys? We're going to top off the tanks before we head out."
    "Yeah! Tank-topping!" Sara laughed, reading extra meaning into every phrase, as usual.
    Tanks, indeed. Hm. Well, they both had really nice tanks...
    "I heard that," said Sara.
    "Good," I said. "Then you know what I think of your tanks."
    "Well, tank you very much, sir."
    Joking aside, Doris and I were awestruck by the view, to say the least.
    "Big flare ahead!" Sara seemed to yell through our link, "Let's go through it!"
    As April and Sara tunneled through the arching solar flare we could see what they saw and feel it like a hot bath. We also felt them hungrily soak up what seemed to be vast amounts of the energy it provided.
    "Don't get drunk on that stuff," said Doris.
    The words and music of Madonna's 'Ray of Light' suddenly filled our minds as if we were standing in a dance club, surrounded by blaring speakers.
    April laughingly said, "She always sings in the shower."
    Sara turned up the volume a tad in response.
    The women circled the sun once more, then powered into space, swung back, and slung themselves around the sun. They ended up traveling just under light speed on a course that would intercept the debris cluster without taking them too near any of the planets in the solar system.
    Unless one of the ladies focused her attention on something in particular, the only view for the next few days would be the blackness of space sprinkled liberally with stars. While that would be interesting for a while, I didn't envy them the rest of the trip.
    Some minutes after leaving the sun April said she wanted to close the link and we thanked them for the show by sending them another round of hugs and kisses.
    I asked Doris, "You ready to go back downstairs yet?"
    Doris just looked at me for a moment and shook her head as she said softly, "No. Not yet. Just when I think I'm getting used to these linkups... Something like this happens... Wow!"
    Nodding, I pulled a couple of folding lounge chairs from the stairwell. Once our semi-official rooftop confabs had become fairly routine, it had been decided that some thought should be given to creature comforts, so I'd spent a few agency bucks on weatherproof furniture at a pool-supply store.

Chapter Two

    Tires screeched below us and the sounds of cars colliding reached us from the street. We got up to have a look and saw that the accident had been rather severe. One of the cars looked as if its engine might have been shoved into the driver's lap and the other car was upside down, half onto the sidewalk.
    Doris muttered, "How the hell did they do that in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Some people are truly gifted, aren't they?"
    Both cars were blocking an Akard Street intersection in the middle of rush hour and traffic was piling up around them. Emergency vehicles would have a hard time getting to them and people were beginning to approach the wrecks.
    "That sounds like Doris the Cop talking," I said. "Want to go down there?"
    She nodded and moved closer so I could pick her up as she said, "Doris the Cop also says we need to keep people well clear in case there's a fire, but we can handle that while we check out the drivers."
    I stepped off the roof and quickly lowered us eighteen floors to the sidewalk. A woman at a bus stop jumped back with a soft screech as we landed.
    As soon as Doris's feet touched the ground she was on her way to the nearest of the accident cars while I started urging people near the cars to get clear and stay clear.
    The front end of one car had been accordioned into a compacted wad of leaking metal and the driver was slumped over the wheel. Doris reached in to check his pulse and seemed not to find one, because she almost immediately headed for the upside-down car.
    I took a turn looking for a pulse, as well. Nope. Nothing.
    "Ed!" yelled Doris.
    Turning away from herding people, I saw Doris waving at me, so I jogged over there. I could see her problem before I arrived. The roof of the car had crushed inward badly and we'd have to remove the door to get at the driver.
    "Door's jammed," she said. "I can yank the door off or hold the car to keep it from sliding, but not both."
    "I'll hold the car steady. Go for it."
    She got a grip on the door and gave it a heave. It came off in her hands, sending one of the hinge bolts flying at the other car. It spanged off the wreckage and skittered to a stop between two onlookers, one of whom picked it up with awe.
    Doris tossed the door aside and leaned into the car. We could see that the driver -- still suspended in his seat by his seat belt -- was unconscious and bleeding profusely, and Doris again asked me to help by supporting his legs as she gently lifted him out.
    Tendrils of smoke rose from somewhere in the overturned car. Better to have it burn in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk in front of a drugstore. After helping Doris get the man to the sidewalk, I returned to the car.
    When I began to lift the car, it sagged groaningly, made popping and snapping noises, and began to come apart in my hands. Doris left the man on the sidewalk and came to help as I began shoving the car into the middle of the street.
    With a great deal of noise from the car's dragging roof, we shoved the dead car out to the yellow line some distance from the other wrecked vehicle.
    There was a broad puddle of oil and a trail of anti-freeze under the front end of the car and a trickle of gasoline under the rear. Instead of flowing toward the gutter, the gasoline followed the incline of the hill between the yellow lines, spreading itself out some at the intersection, and then continued flowing downhill.
    A uniformed cop arrived, saying that he'd had to park his car almost a block away. He checked out the man in the upright wreck and jogged over to the guy on the sidewalk, then radioed a situation report.
    Maybe someone downhill just hadn't quite been able to resist the temptation of flowing gasoline. A trail of fire flowed uphill along the gas trail and a woman screamed, "Fire! Fire!"
    People cleared the street a helluva lot faster than they had before, but they didn't retreat beyond the sidewalks.
    With a great 'whoomp!' the rear of the upside-down car jumped slightly and became a fireball and the cop had to change his radio report as he was giving it.
    A second cop showed up with a similar story about parking difficulties. He conferred with the first cop, then applied himself to crowd control as the first cop tried to help the injured man. When a third cop appeared, he and one of the others tried vainly to make a path for an ambulance.
    "Doris," I said, "They have a street full of witnesses. Do you want to stay here and fill out paperwork?"
    "No. We've done what we can and one of these guys knows me. Let's let the uniforms handle things. Back to the roof?"
    "Too many people. We'd be noticed. Let's go through the drugstore and take the elevator to the roof, then hop over to our building."
    Just as I said that, a car ignored the cops and tried to slip past the burning wreck. The cops yelled and someone in the crowd tossed a water bottle that bounced off the car's windshield.
    "A distraction," said Doris. "Let's go."
    We ducked into the drugstore. As we passed the electronics counter, a clerk seemed to be rather frantically messing with a video camera. He didn't look up as we passed. When we got off the elevator on the fifteenth floor, there seemed to be no way to go any further up without ruining a locked door.
    "Can't break and exit," said Doris. "That's as bad as breaking and entering."
    "So we'll stroll around a bit and look for another way out. Failing that, we can tiptoe out of here later."
    A janitor encountered us near the elevator. He peered at us for a moment, then asked if we were looking for a way to the roof.
    Doris asked, "The roof? Why would we want to go to the roof?"
    The guy grinned and grunted a short laugh.
    "Well," he said, "I seen y'all workin' down there in the street and I seen how ya'll jumped down off the roof acrost the way. I figger y'all wouldn't be way up here atall 'cept to get away from all the ruckus downstairs, so that means y'all are prob'ly lookin' for a way to get to the roof."
    He jangled his key ring and added, "And I got the keys right here. Y'all wanna go up to the roof or not?"
    "Sure do," I said. "Thanks."
    He nodded and led the way to the door. We thanked him again and shook his hand as he held the door open for us, then he followed us onto the roof and leaned on the door as I picked up Doris and prepared to jump.
    "By the way," he said, "If'n y'all ever need to come in or go out this way agin, you might just gimme a call after four and before midnight. That's my shift."
    He recited a pager number. We thanked him again and I hopped us across to our building's rooftop. When I put Doris down and we turned to look back, he gave us a little wave -- we waved back, of course -- and then he turned to go back inside the building as casually as if he'd been taking a smoke break.
    The police and fire people seemed to have things under control in the street. The fire had been put out and a small group of paramedics was wheeling a pair of gurneys onto the scene as a news crew from some media office in a nearby building filmed the event.
    "Glad we got away before the hounds arrived," I said.
    Doris looked at me quizzically. I pointed at a guy with a shoulder-mounted camera on the sidewalk below.
    "Oh. Reporters, you mean."
    "Yeah, them."
    "You don't like the idea of being a news item?"
    "No. Famous people can't even take a leak in peace."
    She shrugged slightly and said, "Could be we won't have a choice after today. That clerk in the drugstore was aiming a camera out the window before we went in."
    "Yeah, I saw him messing with it. Looked as if something wasn't working and he was trying to fix it when we went by."
    "I guess we'll find out later."
    Find out we did, when we went back to the offices downstairs. The TV by the coffee bar was on and a small crowd had gathered around it. Upon our arrival we were told by one of the other operatives that the Ed and Doris show was on.
    Doris groaned and muttered, "Oh, hell."
    Channel 9 had been the high bidder, I guess. They had the exclusive tape on the incident, and the other stations who showed the footage left the little "9" logo on the bottom right of the screen as a credit.
    The clerk in the drugstore had grabbed one of the video cameras, loaded it, and begun filming through the drugstore window right after the wreck. The camera had been pointing at the upright wreck and had caught our landing at the bus stop, as well as everything else we'd done. We'd even been filmed as we'd boarded the elevators in the drugstore's building.
    "Well, damn," I said. "I guess I'll take my phone off the hook for a while."
    Doris chuckled at me as the phone in her office rang. Her assistant, Angie, answered it, then yelled to Doris that someone from Channel 9 wanted an interview.
    Doris said, "Take a number and say I may call back," then she muttered, "When hell freezes."
    She looked less than thrilled, and I grinningly took my turn at chuckling at her.
    "Heh. See? Maybe my phone isn't going to be the problem. Someone recognized you, ma'am. I'm still Mister Mystery."
    "Not for long, smartass. If they've managed to find me this quickly, they'll find you, too."
    "Huh-uh. Nope. I'm not the one with the gorgeous legs and a skirt that rode up when she knelt by the injured man. Guess I'm just not news. See ya."
    Angie said, "Uh, no, not quite. Look," and pointed at the TV.
    On the screen I was shoving the upside-down car sideways to the middle of the street, then Doris stepped into the scene. As soon as she did, the camera zoomed in on her legs and butt.
    "See?" I said. "No sweat. Wow! Look at those legs."
    Angie muttered, "He shouldn't have zoomed on your legs like that, Doris."
    I said, "Any man would, Angie. We can't help it, y'know. Wow, just look at 'em. Doris, this could be your ticket to show biz."
    Doris snapped, "Enough about my legs, both of you."
    Grinning, I said, "Doris, if you don't return their call, they'll come looking for you."
    She nodded and sighed, "Yeah. I know. Quiet, now. I have to think about what to say."
    Angie asked, "You're not really going to give them an interview?"
    "If I don't, there's no telling what they'll say."
    "Or what they'll ask if you do," said Angie. "I wouldn't do it. What do you think, Ed?"
    "You already know what I think. I'm getting the hell out of here before they show up. You're on your own, ladies."
    Angie said, "Oh, hey! Someone said you have a new car, Ed. I was absolutely shocked. Stunned, you could almost say."
    She grinned at Doris and Doris grinned back. I sighed.
    "Yeah, well, don't be," I said, "It's a new old car; an '84 Olds Eighty-Eight that's already given emergency rides to four owners of this year's models. How much are your car payments, Angie?"
    "My what?" She rolled her eyes and said, "Oh. Oh, God; way too much. Over $450.00 a month."
    "Plus full coverage insurance, I'll bet," I said. "I have a garage-kept, fully loaded, completely operational 1984 luxury car that cost me about two of your car payments. Liability insurance only, with a low deductible. Cars are just money holes and new cars are the worst kinds of money holes. Your first two years of payments go to cover profits and interest."
    "Are you sure you aren't just saying that because you can't afford one?"
    Doris interjected, "Nah, he can afford one. I think he really believes this stuff."
    "Oh, he does, ma'am," I said with a laugh. "See you on Monday. Gee, that accident is still tying up the entrance to our garage, isn't it? Good thing I didn't drive to work today. Oh, wait! Didn't you ladies drive to work? You could be here a while, I bet. Bye!"
    Both ladies reflected the shock of realizing the truth of my statement. They went to the windows to see how cleanup efforts below were going.
    I retrieved my orange road-crew vest with hyper-reflective strips all over it from the coat rack and tied it to my backpack, then went to the roof. Lifting into the sky in the direction of Mesquite, I dodged a few of the taller buildings until I was clear of downtown Dallas, then I then stayed low, only a few hundred feet up.
    A near-miss at night by a small plane had made me realize that I could be hard to see in the air. Funny how things like that don't always occur to you until something brings them to your attention. I'd heard the plane, then seen its oncoming lights and descended a bit. The plane had seemed to follow me down and had missed me by inches.
    Flight is still new to me in some ways. Although I can reach speeds barely in excess of Mach 4 in a flat-out dash, I discovered quickly that clothes don't handle such speeds well. Also, without expandable energy storage "tanks" like April and Sara had, both my speed and strength are rather limited.
    Full speed for thirty minutes leaves me feeling washed out and dead tired for the thirty minutes or so it takes to recharge enough to function in hard Texas sunlight with my shirt off.
    It doesn't seem to matter where the energy comes from. I can bask in the sun for a while or soak up electricity or stick my hands in a fire. As I said, I can't store as much energy as the ladies, but as long as there's a source of raw energy of some sort, I can recharge pretty quickly.
    Doris linked with me and said in a softly accusing tone, "Ed, you hit the road without even asking if I wanted some company this evening. I'm feeling rather slighted at the moment."
    "Well, do you want some company? I can turn around."

    Her laugh came through our link. "Nah. I just wanted to beat you over the head with it. Something's come up here at the office and I can't get away just yet, anyway. Ever hear of Dennis Malloy?"
    "Nope. What's up?"
    "Not Malloy. He's dead. They found him in a dumpster while we were out of the office. Somebody knifed him."
    "Uh, huh. Who was Malloy and how should I respond to this, um... grave... news, Doris?"
    "Very funny. Malloy was an informant, Ed. A good one who seemed to be trying to buy back a level of decency. He used to deal in hot jewelry, but when he got out of prison, he tried to go straight."
    "Well, that's unusual. Good for him, of course. Again..."
    "Yeah, yeah. Respond by being available this evening, okay? I may have a job for you."
    "When am I not available for you, Doris? I'm at your beck and call night and day, you know. Sometimes I sit by the phone for hours, hoping in vain that you'll call and..."
Her bark of mental laughter was followed by, "Oh, Jesus, enough, please! I just wanted to let you know that you may be called back in."
    "Okay. I won't make any plans that I can't break."

Chapter Three

    The road to my farm isn't the empty stretch of blacktop Interstate service road that it was when I first saw it in 1966.
    A few condos had been installed nearby in the seventies and a few fancy houses appeared in the eighties, but all of them are still half a mile from my barbed wire fences that keep Don Vine's cattle on his and my properties.
    I dropped out of the sky at Wanda's little gas station and store and walked in to find Wanda Mae behind the counter. She reached into the cooler and handed me a Dr Pepper as I approached the register and plopped a dollar on the counter.
    "Hi, Ed. Joey's back," she said, referring to her oldest son as she made change.
    "Is that good news this time?"
    She shook her head and said, "Nope. The damned dummy's only here 'cause Oklahoma's after him. Tickets, again. Six of 'em. He just don't seem to learn."
    I grunted sympathetically and pretended to notice something on a magazine cover as a way of dropping the subject.
    Wanda asked, "You looking for Don?"
    "Nah. Just dropped in on the way home. I'm going to check the fenceline on the way in. There's more construction to the south. The damned condos are getting too close these days."
    "Y'all ain't been selling land to those vultures, I hope?"
    "Nope. Brenda and I won't part with an inch of it. Somebody's brats have been cutting across the property on dirtbikes again."
    "Damn. This is... what? The third time? Fourth? Do I wanna know what you're gonna do about it?"
    "It's the fifth time, and no, you don't want to know."
    I finished my Dr Pepper as we chatted, then I lifted in the direction of my farm to pick up some new fence wire. The first thing on my list was to discover where the little snots had torn down the cattle fence this time.
    Chasing cattle was admittedly easier when you could fly, and being able to pick up an errant cow and fly her back to the farm was a definite plus, but I was worried that someone would hit one on the service road.
    As I approached the house, I saw Brenda on the porch. I waved as I headed to the barn for some new fence wire and a couple of cardboard boxes, then I went to locate the bike trails and followed them to the northeast, toward the service road, until I spotted the gap in the fence.
    Knotting the broken ends of the fence wire into loops, I spliced them with bits of new wire, then followed the bike trails to the other hole in the fenceline. It was at the other end of a direct, katty-corner line to the condos, half a mile away at the bottom of the hill.
    Same thing there; all three lines down, neatly cut dead center between the poles. After repairing the wires, I took a moment to study where the bikers appeared to have gone from there. Or to have come from in the first place, I suppose.
    A thick grove of scrub oaks stood between my property and the condos, but apparently bulldozers had begun scraping some of them away to ready an area for another spate of building.
    The cleared areas were heavily laced with bike trails, but it appeared that the bikers had cut a path of their own among the remaining trees in order to get to my fence, and that particular area looked to me like a perfect place to set a trap.
    After weaving bunches of small branches together and wiring them onto my boots to conceal the soles, I returned to the grove just before nightfall and picked a spot where the bike trails converged in a narrow gap between some of the trees before the start of the straightaway trail that led uphill to my fence.
    Using what's called a 'shooter' shovel -- I have no idea why -- I dug a foot-wide, foot-deep, yard-long trench about a yard to one side of the tire tracks' usual path, slinging the dirt well into the surrounding grove. I then pulled some branches down to block the usual trail and redirect the bikers into the trench. After placing strips of cardboard over the trench, a few leaves and some dirt concealed the trap well enough.
    From the direction of the construction site came the sound of breaking glass. I hung the shovel in the top of a tree, took off my improvised snowshoes, and then lifted and drifted in that direction to see what was going on.
    Hovering above one of the half-completed condos, I spotted the source of the noise. Three late-teens were throwing rocks and beer bottles at some uninstalled windows that had been placed inside the incomplete garage between the condos.
    As another window shattered, I landed and walked around the side of the garage saying, "I think it came from over here. You take a look in the back. I'll take the front."
    The brats scattered like rats. Three dirt bikes cranked up and one left a long streak of burned rubber on the concrete floor of the garage. Another one came out of the garage doing a wheel stand that lasted all the way to the end of the driveway.
    The three bikes headed up the hill toward the grove, their riders whooping and laughing all the way. The leader of the pack hopped his bike over some small obstacle and turned to enter the narrow zone between the trees with the other two close behind.
    When the leader saw the branches blocking his usual route, he naturally swerved to avoid them and hit the brakes. His front wheel plunged through the light covering over the trench and was stopped instantly when it hit the end of the trench.
    The bike's rear went high into the air on a bit of an angle, bucking the rider a few yards to one side of where the bike landed upside-down. I heard the front forks snap loudly and the idle of the engine as the still-spinning back wheel struck the ground and bounced. The bike fell to rest on its side, still running.
    In an effort to avoid running over his buddy, one of the other bikers cut too hard to the right and rammed into the thicket. The other one had nowhere to go and couldn't stop. He drove right over the first bike's wreckage and he and his bike went sailing into the air fairly spectacularly.
    A low branch caught him in the chest and took him off the flying bike, which didn't land too well. The front wheel turned sharply and the bike did a somersault before slamming to the ground, still in gear.
    Its back wheel made contact with the ground and the bike lurchingly climbed up the trunk of one of the warped little trees. When the wheel touched the ground again, the bike tried to lunge forward against its twisted front wheel and wound up killing the engine as it bucked itself into the air, then fell flat on its side.
    I lifted and flitted over to my fence, then made a production of climbing through it and jogging down the hillside.
    "Is anybody hurt?" I yelled, "Should I call an ambulance?"
    One of the guys saw me coming and said, "Oh, shit!"
    The leader rolled over and sat up, glaring at me. The guy who'd caught the branch in the chest was trying to breathe and the other one was already on his feet, even though his knees weren't too steady.
    "Who the hell are you?" asked the leader.
    Ignoring his question, I said, "Damn, that bike's gonna need a whole new front end, isn't it?"
    His voice was ominous. "Did you dig this hole?"
    I went over to look into the trench as I asked "Me?" Looking toward the condos, I asked, "You guys been doing anything that would really piss off construction people?"
    He ignored my question and started trying to pull his bike out of the trench. It was wedged tightly, so I reached to help pull it up as he pulled back. The front wheel was warped and dangled from one of the shock absorbers.
    A certain amount of swearing and kicking of machinery occurred over the next few minutes as they checked out the other bikes. After a while I observed aloud that there wasn't much that I could do to help, then walked back up the hill.
    As soon as I was over the crest of the hill, I dropped flat and crept back to watch what they'd do next. Thinking someone was checking around the condos, they didn't want to go back down the hill, and it didn't appear that they wanted to try going up the hill dragging two dead bikes.
    The bikes probably weighed around three hundred pounds each. Only the one that had stopped in the thicket looked capable of rolling anywhere. The leader commandeered it and roared away toward the service road.
    When the other two guys sat down to wait, I took the opportunity to go get a beer and call the cops about bikers near the construction site, then returned to the fence to watch.
    A pickup truck arrived shortly and drove around the side of the hill to the fallen bikes. As the guys strained to heave one of the bikes up and into the truck, the cops showed up in two cars.
    One drove up the construction path and the other drove along the tracks in the grass that had been made by the pickup.
    Whatever answer came back to the cops on their radio made them stiffen up and turn businesslike. The guys were allowed to finish loading the bikes into the truck, then they were put into the back seat of one of the cop cars and were taken away.
    The remaining cop took the keys out of the truck and then got the keys from the bikes, dropped them all in baggies, and then took down the plate numbers on all the vehicles.
    After rolling up the truck windows and locking the doors, he drove his car in the direction of the construction site, where he stopped and spent some time looking around. When he didn't seem to be looking in the right places, I flitted down there and tossed a landscaping pebble into the garage that had the long black streak on the floor.
    When the pebble rattled across the garage floor, the cop whipped around and followed the sound. I hovered above the oak grove and watched as he found the black streak and the broken windows in the garage.
    Leaving the cop to his own devices, I headed back to the house, retrieving my shovel from the grove. The way the cops had hauled the three bikers away made me think that they'd probably have to find somewhere else to play in the future.

Chapter Four

    It was a quarter to eight as I put the shovel back in the barn. I linked to Doris and asked if she'd made it out of the office yet.
    "No, I'm still here," she said. "Malloy's sister showed up downstairs asking about him. The clerk caught the name and called me. I told him to send her up."
    "Doris, you haven't worked for the PD for almost a year. Why aren't you letting the cops handle it? They'll probably see this as interagency interference."
    "I have my reasons. Tell you later, if I have to call you in on it. Bye for now."
    I 'heard' her telling someone to have a seat just before she unlinked us.
    Hm. Good 'nuff, then. I headed for my barn apartment and opened a beer, then tossed myself on the couch to see if there was anything worth watching on the tube.
    Flip. Flip. Flip. Nope. Nothing I wanted to see or hadn't already seen. Whups, wait one. Back a channel. A womens' Beach Volleyball tourney. Fine, tanned young women in bikinis scampering around and occasionally straining heroically to bash a white ball over a net. Yeah. That would do.
    For about half an hour I watched solid-bodied young women slap the ball around. Lithe, strong, and determined women; the kind of people who incessantly try to operate at close to one hundred percent in whatever they do.
    I tried to decide whether that was a quality or a curse as I watched one of the bikini-clad amazons dive halfway across the court in a desperate attempt to get under the ball. She wound up wearing a considerable amount of sand and nursing a sore elbow as her teammates continued the play.
    She got to her feet while still shaking off the hard landing and managed twice more to keep the ball in play before someone slammed it over the net to the sand on her team's side. She then stoically took her position for the next serve.
    Great legs. Great form in general. One in particular had long brunette hair tied out of her way in a pony tail. Her gaze was as sharp as a knife and she seemed to regard the game in progress as a deathmatch. I wondered if she had an intellect to match the rest of her qualities. Probably, since they were college teams. If she applied herself to business in the same manner...
    A knock at the door broke my musings. I went to open it and found Brenda standing in darkness on my porch.
    "You might want to replace that light bulb," she said.
    "It's on my do list," I said, opening the screen door, "Summer nights in Texas aren't much different from summer days, are they? Just a little darker."
    "If you mean the heat; no, they aren't. I see you're watching the educational stuff tonight."
    "You betcha. College teams. Brains all over the place."
    Laughing, Brenda said, "Brains. Right. In bikinis, no less. Well, at least it isn't a jiggle show. Those girls don't seem to jiggle at all, do they? Got another beer?"
    Brenda sat down on the sofa chair as I fetched her a beer and asked, "Why do you still drink beer, Ed? Enhancees can't get a buzz from drinking, can they?"
    As I brought her the beer, I said, "No, they can't. I have an Ice House now and then for the same reason I have a Dr Pepper now and then; I feel like it."
    Nodding understandingly, Brenda settled into the chair.
    Some minutes later she tipped her bottle at the screen and asked, "What do you bet they're all hard-core lesbians?"
    "I'm not dating any of them, so why should I care? They look great and put on a good show."
    A window box formed that obscured a quarter of the screen and some putz of an announcer babbled excitedly about the last play and mentioned that the score was twenty to seventeen between attempts to inject 'color' into his cliche-ridden blather.
    "Aw, shut up and get off the screen," I said.
    Brenda snickered and asked, "Is he blocking your view?"
    "Damned right he is. We don't need announcers anyway. All they'd have to do is run a bar across the bottom with scores."
    One of the women served the ball and a flurry of activity centered around the net for a few moments, then the ball hit the sand and an air horn sounded as some of the crowd cheered and some looked disgruntled.
    A guy with a small child in his arms walked out to the woman I'd been admiring the most and the three of them shared a group hug for a moment as the announcer introduced the man as her husband and the child as her daughter.
    Brenda's eyebrow went up and she said, "Well, maybe one of them isn't a lesbian, then. But look at the others. Women don't get that way naturally, Ed."
    "Maybe these women haven't bought the party line that says to be soft and fluffy and docile."
    She giggled. "Soft and fluffy? Docile?"
    "Yeah. The Snow White syndrome. Frog kissing. All that. Women like them aren't likely to buy that kind of 'your prince will come' bullshit."
    Brenda snickered and said, "No, not likely. Take a look at the blonde on the right. I'll bet that one isn't into princes at all. May be she's into princesses, though."
    "Yeah? How do you tell? Excellent legs and arms. No boobs to speak of, but I never cared much about boobs anyway. Those bods come from sweating gallons and playing hard, that's all. What is it about her that makes you think she's a lesbian?"
    "Her eyes. She's eyeballing the other team members."
    "So? You are, too, and you aren't a lesbian... Unless there's something you haven't mentioned to Frank and me."
    "Cute. I mean... Well, she looks at other women like a man looks at women."
    I shrugged and sipped my beer, then said, "Maybe you're right. We're back to 'so what?', aren't we? I'll never hold going down on a woman against anybody."
    Brenda snickered, then sighed and said, "It doesn't really matter. I was just making an observation."
    When she didn't add anything and said nothing for some time, I asked, "What's on your mind, Brenda?"
    Glancing away from the TV, she shifted position and pulled her feet up under her on the chair. When that position didn't seem to work, she put them back on the floor.
    "I don't know," she said, "Frank's up in the computer room and I saw your lights on. Sometimes living on a farm is boring, you know. I just wanted some company."
    "You got it, then. Anything in particular bugging you?"
    "I didn't say anything was bugging me. I just said I needed some company."
    "Ah, so you did. My mistake."
    I flipped channels in search of something else worthy of attention for a few moments. Brenda watched the screen for a while, then her gaze seemed to focus on nothing as she stared in the general direction of the desk.
    Some show involving more scantily clad women chattering in Spanish held my attention for a few seconds. I was about to flip channels again when Brenda spoke.
    "At least those women had real curves," she muttered. "Those women were positively overweight by American standards."
    "Well, then, to hell with American standards," I said. "They look pretty healthy to me. Not a bunch of coat racks with breast implants. Some of 'em put on makeup with a trowel, though."
    Nodding with a short laugh, she said, "Yeah, they do. But you're right; at least they didn't look like anorexia patients, did they? That one on the end was actually a little hefty."
    'Ah, ha,' I thought. 'We're having some kind of an image problem tonight, maybe?'
    "Brenda, what's bothering you?"
    She looked up from her barely-touched beer and gazed at me as if wondering whether she should let me in on some secret, then she asked, "Am I still attractive, Ed?"
    "Sure. I'd be interested if you weren't married and both of us were enhanced, Brenda."
    She continued to gaze at me with essentially the same expression and asked, "Truthfully? You aren't just saying that?"
    Grinning, I said, "You know me, Bren. If I don't want to answer a question, I just find some painless way to duck it. If I don't mind answering, I tell it like it is; and in this case, that means that if you were enhanced, I'd lick you like a happy puppy, then I'd bang you like a drum, ma'am. Super or not, you'd be walking funny for a week."
    Reddening a bit, her snicker became a giggle, then a chuckle, then she laughed explosively. Good. Just the reaction I'd wanted. I could have asked if things were all right between her and Frank, but I didn't.
    Let her find her own way to express her problems, then explain them to me if she would. I'd play the dummy and she'd have to explain matters so well that she'd be unable to avoid hearing her own words.
    Brenda bit her lip and fidgeted for a time, then sucked hard on her beer and fidgeted some more.
    "I think I'm turning into a damned blimp," she said, then she looked at me quickly, pointed at me, and said, "And don't duck this one, okay?"
    Shrugging, I said, "You've gained maybe fifteen permanent pounds since high school. Big deal. I've seen your yearbook, and you were skinny back then. Now you're past forty and you're finally starting to fill out a bit, which is what happens if you don't run your ass off every day. Don't worry about it. You look damned good to me, Brenda."
    She regarded me skeptically for a moment, then said, "I think Frank's lost interest in me, Ed. He hasn't said so, but..." She let her sentence trail off.
    "Well, he's over forty, too, and you've been together for nearly twenty years. You've each heard everything the other has to say about everything. You've seen each other naked fairly often, too. No mysteries left."
    She nodded slightly and asked, "And if that's the problem, what can I do about it? What would you do?"
    "Hm. Unlike you, I don't have any reason to avoid variety."
    Brenda took a long drink of her beer and sat pensively for some time before asking, "So that's your best answer to this kind of problem? Go out and get a new one?"
    "It always worked for me. 'Course, I moved around a lot in my previous jobs, so the issue of over-familiarity never really came up for me, and nowadays, with April, Doris, and Sara, I never seem to have time to get bored."
    Her smile was bleak and wry.
    "No, I guess you wouldn't. Any closing advice? I'm going back to the house, I think."
    Advice, she called it. Yeah, well, maybe it was, after a fashion; she wanted a man's viewpoint or she would have talked to one of her girlfriends about it.
    She finished her beer and got up to take the bottle to the kitchen, then headed for the front door, where she stopped to look back at me. I let her see me eyeballing her, of course.
    I said, "You might try talking to Frank. Maybe start wearing something a bit more dramatic than a housedress or jeans; something like short skirts or shorts. Put on shorts and count the male looks you get if you need some second opinions. Legs like yours don't go unnoticed, I guarantee that."
    Something another woman had done to rejuvenate her marriage came to my mind and I added, "Do something exciting. Different. We've got some privacy out here. Start swimming naked at night. Dump your swimsuit, then dare him to dump his. Bang him on the pier. Stuff like that. Daring little things that'll make his blood move a little faster."
    She gave me a rather skeptical look that said 'typical male thinking' and grinningly asked, "Are you sure you aren't just hoping I'll do that so you can watch?"
    Returning her grin, I said, "You could schedule your spur of the moment events for when I'm not here, y'know."
    "I think it may take a little more than a short skirt or a midnight swim to fix things, Ed."
    I nodded. "Maybe, but it's a start, and the skirts and other stuff will alert Frank that something's up. They'll probably get you laid more often and they could open the door for discussions without your having to confront Frank about being bored with you. In this kind of thing, you definitely don't want to put him on the defensive. That'll just make things worse. Tell him that you're tired of yourself, that you plan to do something about it, and ask him what he'd like to see you wear. If he doesn't have a ready answer, just avoid wearing anything that he's already seen. Get some new stuff. Show some skin a few times a week."
    Brenda seemed to ponder that for a moment, the pulled the door open. For another moment, she stood there gazing at me, then nodded and said, "Thanks," and left the apartment.
    I stood up to go to the kitchen and spotted her through the window. She was heading toward the house at a snail's pace, her hands clasped behind her back and her gaze fixed on the ground in apparent thought. I got another beer and opened it. When I looked out the kitchen window again, I saw that she'd changed course. Brenda was now headed for the pond.
    Illuminated only by the single 40-watt bulb at the middle of the pier and the bug zapper's pale blue light, she stopped at the end of the pier, looked back toward my apartment, and then looked up at Frank's computer room window.
    On the four-foot-wide pier was half of a plastic porch table that had been more or less permanently attached to a pier piling. Next to the table and leaning against another piling was a stack of six plastic lawn chairs.
    Taking a chair off the top of the stack, Brenda set the chair next to the table, sat down in it and seemed to consider things for a few moments, then she put the chair back on the stack and used her hip to shove the stack off the pier.
    In the quiet darkness the column of chairs made a relatively tremendous splash, of course. Frank opened the window to look out, then he called Brenda's name.
    Brenda stood by the table as she yelled, "I'm fine, Frank! I just knocked the chairs into the water! Bring me a towel!"
    "They'll be there tomorrow!" yelled Frank.
    Brenda pulled her dress off over her head and tossed it on the table before yelling back, "No, I'm getting them out now! Bring me a towel!"
    She then took off her bra, tossed it on her dress, and stood gloriously almost-naked for a moment before she held her nose and hopped off the pier into the water.
    Even at that distance and in that poor light, I could see that her nipples had been erect like stubby erasers, and I felt like yelling, "Yeah, lady! Go, Brenda! Get some tonight!"
    Frank glanced my way. I waved my beer at him. He ducked back inside and shortly hurried out the front door, carrying the requested towel. I stepped outside into the darkness of my porch and had to hissingly call his name twice to get him to detour in my direction.
    As he neared me, I whispered, "You should have brought two towels, Frank."
    He gave me a quizzical look and asked, "What?"
    "Trust me. I'm going to issue you a couple of beers and another towel. Just wait right there."
    I brought out my backpack, the towel, and the beers and said, "See ya. Give her a good time, man. I'm going into town."
    Frank looked back at the pond for a moment, then turned to face me again.
    "What the hell's going on, Ed?"
    "Just go with it, Frank. It's important to her. Now get moving. I'm gonna go shoot some pool or something."
    With that, I pulled my door shut and lifted off the porch in the direction of Dallas. Frank watched me go for a moment, then turned and jogged toward the pond.
    Brenda had shoved a few of the chairs onto the deck and had climbed out of the water to restack them, her body glistening wetly in the almost surreal lighting of the pier. Her really nice body, I noted; not fat and not skinny.
    I'd seen her drop her robe in skyclad circle rituals often enough; it was no big deal when surrounded by a dozen other nude people who were wrapped up in the spiritual mechanics of calling a circle.
    This nudity was different, and in a rather exciting way. This nudity had been carefully deliberated and contrived by a woman who wanted her man to notice her for a change, and -- possibly to add a level to her excitement -- she'd decided to ignore the fact that I might be watching her antics as she set about getting laid.
    When Brenda skinned out of her clingingly translucent panties, Frank stopped in openmouthed startlement at the beginning of the pier, glanced up at me, and then hurried toward Brenda. Like I said, it was a different kind of nakedness.

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