The meeting between Rawbone and Ted Powell took place in a parking garage in San Jose, about 40 miles southeast of Fort Richardson.
Rawbone had no idea who Ted Powell represented in the matter, and didn't want to know. Ted Powell only knew that his boss, Preston Miles, had offered a fairly large bonus for completing this transaction.
I was crouched comfortably on a girder fifty feet above the pair as they met, with steel on both sides of me and a thick wall of steel reinforced concrete at my back. There would be no surprises like the one Quake had given me the last time!
I was prepared for Ted Powell to have some sort of power, even to be a coercer, but he proved to be pretty ordinary, at least in that way. Sharply efficient, ruthless and cold, but otherwise ordinary. His mind didn't show any obvious signs of tampering, ham-handed or otherwise. His value to his employer appeared to be his resourcefulness and his contacts within the gang world.
The image of Preston Miles that I got was of a smooth, sophisticated businessman, almost European in his dress and mannerisms, with dark brown hair and brown eyes set in a thin, elegant face. Ted Powell had only met him in person once, and that was at the beginning of the current situation. Preston Miles had requested his services personally, and that bespoke its importance.
Beyond his recent close association with the boss, Ted Powell was a low level executive whose job was a cover for the seedier activities that Praetor Corp engaged in, and over which he had some control.
I read in Ted Powell's mind that there would be no follow-up meeting with the boss over this deal, and it was a single event affair — his mind contained no list of other nefarious operations in Fort Richardson. The intended effects of this operation, and their success or failure, were not his concern and, he assumed, would be apparent to the boss without any feedback from him. Powell himself didn't even know what the hoped for results were supposed to be.
Following Ted Powell any further was going to a waste of time. He had already proved to be a dead end, and it appeared that I was going to have to make a road trip to Los Angeles to find out any more.
I got back to the apartment in Fort Richardson, and out of my Midnight gear and into a soft sweater and comfy pajama bottoms just in time for my alarm bracelet to go off. The bracelet was an idea I'd had that let my sensor network alert me to police APBs and other emergency broadcasts and citywide alerts when I wasn't in uniform.
I sighed, and popped out of the comfy clothes, putting the armor back on and activating the head gear to get access to the comm suite.
Police reports coming in indicated that a bad guy who went by the name of Lord Steel was within the city limits and headed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My Museum!
I slid on the rest of my gear and jumped Wing back into the skies above me, while at the same time flashing through my super villain database looking for anything I had on Lord Steel.
Hmm. Fifteen foot tall mechanical suit of armor. No guns, rockets, lasers, etc. Just mechanical muscles, and crushing steel claws. Oh goody! I had really been looking forward to butting heads with someone I could just have a fistfight with. This looked like it might be my opportunity.
I dropped out of the sky three blocks southwest of the museum, and could see the bad guy coming up Santo Lora Boulevard, one of the city's wider thoroughfares.
I tripped one of my new holographic effects, borrowed again from the work my sister-in-law Cor had done with gravitic field-supported holography. I hovered twenty feet above the street, surrounded by a coruscating ball of 'midnight force', its dark energy licking out in slick, fast moving tendrils. All of it nearly unreal, of course.
"No further, rust bucket!" I called out, using the comm suite in my armor to amplify my voice. I was aware of the dozens of police cars pulling up in the cross streets, as well as in front of the museum behind me.
"Rust bucket!" Came the reply, also amplified. Lord Steel jumped it into high gear and came running at me at high speed, taking a big swing as he did. I braced myself, wrapping a little more Light-based shielding around my armor and let the blow land.
Damn! There was some real power there! The blow knocked me backwards through the air a good twenty feet. When I came to a stop in mid-air, I triggered another holographic effect. The field of Midnight force around me collapsed into a ball, becoming a form-fitting impenetrable blackness. I mentally toggled an option from the controls available in my Heads Up Display, and the field continued to grow until it had grown to a size very close to that of Lord Steel's.
"Nice shot," I said, in a voice amplified even more than before, and made deep and hollow. "Let's see how you handle one from me."
I flew back towards him and swung a comparable blow, knocking him back and down, causing the pavement of the street to crack and buckle slightly where he hit. I let my new form lower slowly to the ground, and once there, I used the HUD controls again to give me some weight and apparent mass. Manipulating gravity fields didn't just mean making things lighter - sometimes heavier is better. The artificial mass made my giant black shape sink into the pavement with every step I took towards Lord Steel. The Metal clad bad guy was back on his feet by the time I got there, and I let him have another shot. While he swung, I was scanning him with all my Light senses. There was a man in there, and he was very well shielded. but after a sweep through his mind and memories, I knew the who and what of him, although the why was going to take some further understanding. Lord Steel was Trey Young, and he was also pretty ordinary, at least as far as that blurry resistance I had witnessed with other super powered people on Terana went.
The steel the suit was made of, and its power source were another story. There was definitely something special about the power source. Looking at that, I decided I would be wise to not assume too much about Lord Steel as a foe.
I had that thought, but at the same time, I really had been looking forward to a face-to-face, toe-to-toe, stand up slugging match.
"This is fun, but we're too likely to hurt someone accidentally, and for sure we're going to keep banging up people's property, not to mention the city streets," I said out loud, but more to myself than to the bad guy.
"Shut up bitch!" was his reply.
"C'mon Rust King, whaddya say? Shall we move this dance someplace more private?" I said playfully. "And why is it that every super villain in town has to refer to me as a bitch?"
I didn't wait for a response, but activated a ball of darkness to envelop the both of us, and in the middle of that cover, I jumped us both to as bare a patch of desert as I could find, due east of us in Nevada.
"What? Where the hell are we?" came the question, as soon as the new surroundings were apparent.
"Somewhere in the Nevada desert," I answered. "Nowhere special, just someplace empty where no one can get hurt except you or me."
I stepped in and took a good swing, knocking him back thirty feet, flat on his metal ass, where he slowly came to a halt after skidding across the dry and dusty flat. He jumped up immediately, roaring in anger. I ran over immediately, with no intention of waiting for him to decide it was his turn. He surprised me by grabbing rather than punching, and with a spinning throw that any Olympic hammer thrower would have been proud of, he launched me like a bullet across the desert floor. I hit the ground after ten feet and slid another thirty.
I got up, dusted myself off and walked back over to stand in front of him.
"C'mon, asshole. Show me what you've got," I taunted, hitting him with another punch, a straight jab this time rather than another of the haymakers we'd been exchanging so far. Reflexively, he jabbed back, a good solid jab too. I reacted by reaching out with my left for an open handed slap across the head. He jabbed again and I counter punched from the right, coming back with something I launched from about the belt, hitting right in the middle of his shiny steel chest. He punched back, abandoning the jab as well.
We stood there and exchanged punch after punch. It seemed like an hour, but my suit told me later it was only fifteen minutes. That steel suit of his was amazingly well built, and he seemed able to absorb an endless amount of punishment at this power level without showing any damage, or even any signs of tiring. I'd had fun, but I had finally had my fill.
"Okay, enough's enough," I said, jumping back out of punching range. I felt for his Light signature inside the suit, and jumped Trey Young out of his suit. I sat him on the ground on the other side of me and deactivated the giant midnight force version of me, letting the holographic disguise fade and the accompanying force fields die.
"Tell me Trey," I asked the almost naked man, "why do you run around causing so much damage in your fine suit there?"
"I do it because... because its what I do!" he said, angry and confused, as if this was the first time he had considered the question.
That kind of an answer raised a few flags in the old McKesson family thought processes, and I decided it merited a closer look. Sure enough, there were a half dozen tight little coils I recognized as thought constructs, similar in some ways to the ones that Mom, Dad and the Legion used to track potential bad guys back home. These were pretty sophisticated, and seemed to be a complete set of controls. Trey Young had been mentally coerced, but in a fashion far beyond what the typical coercer could do. This was more along the lines of what you would expect from a full fledged Spirit Master.
I proceeded with a light touch. Some of the tight little bundles were obviously traps, waiting for the slightest telepathic probe to set them off. Fortunately for me, I had learned very well from Dad, Eru Jehn, and the rest of the Legion of Light. Even the lessons of Spinner and the WoodWise came in handy here, as I cushioned each little construct in a bundle of dream stuff before I removed it. Several of these traps stood a good chance of killing both Trey and me if they'd gone off.
The easiest thing to do, I saved for last. Once all the bundles of thought were gone, I washed away the layer of forgetfulness that had been laid down on his mind.
"Tell me who you are and where you got your suit."
Tell me he did, and as he spoke the words, it was as if he too was hearing his story for the first time.
"My name is Trey Young. I was a metallurgist, and a good one, specializing in steel alloy applications. I built the suit myself, and a crystalline power battery for it, but the battery, as good as it was, couldn't power it for more than a few minutes. I could never come up with a power source capable of letting it reach its true potential. I was always on the lookout for a better power supply."
"It sure looks like you found one," I commented.
"Boy, did I!" he responded. "Do you remember back about five years ago when the League of Heroes held off an attack by the Cloud Kings of Jupiter?"
Of course I didn't really, but I nodded as if I did and let him continue. Meanwhile I flagged a research note for myself.
"I was living in Parma, Ohio when the Hall of Heroes team was battling the wave of death spheres the Cloud Kings had sent. The battle took place over Cleveland, for some reason, so I was busy praying that none of the debris came my way, like everyone else within a hundred miles of the battle. I was also in my suit at the time, because it was the safest place I could think of. One of those spheres came in for a crash landing across the street from my house, and I decided to run over in the suit and investigate. Something in those spheres appeared to be a powerful energy source, based on the trouble the League was having with them. I was right, but that's not all I found."
"A Cloud King?"
"No, well not exactly," Trey replied. "You've seen the pictures Star Knight brought back when he took a trip out that way to tell them to lay off of Terana, right? Big huge floating gasbags, as big as a house, some way bigger than that."
"Oh yeah," I said, not remembering anything of course.
"Well, the Cloud Kings are apparently pretty good at building artificial lifeforms, because each of those death spheres contained an artificial brain with a Cloud King mind stuffed into it."
"Minds capable of altering other minds?" I asked.
"As I discovered. They do require physical contact though, at least in those artificial bodies, so I would have been fine if my curiosity hadn't gotten the best of me."
This news was something I needed to share with Harvey. It was entirely possible that this aspect of the Cloud Kings was still unknown to anyone but Trey Young, and now me. Trey Young might be someone Harvey needed to meet as well. Minus the influence of the Cloud King's mental controls, he was actually a decent guy.
"Trey, did you see yourself using that suit for anything in particular, before the mind job by the cloud clown?"
"I guess I thought I'd be a superhero, if I could find a power source. I had been working on some way to fly too, but I stopped doing research once the controls were in place. I'm a metallurgist, not a physicist, so I feel like I've accomplished a lot to get as far as I have."
"I have to agree. Your suit's ability to protect you from damage is amazing." I scanned the man's mind again, looking for any vestige of control or duplicity that might raise doubts in my mind. I didn't find anything. Well, not exactly true, he was trying really hard not to stare at my breasts, and considering he was in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, he was praying that he could avoid an erection. "There's someone I think you should meet, but it may take me time to arrange it. Was there someplace you were living in Fort Richardson that I can take you to?"
"I don't have a place there, but I do have a big long haul freight truck that I outfitted to carry my armor. It's parked in the lot at the Corona Freight yard at the edge of town. I could go back there."
I had read his memories, so I knew his history. Under the influence of the Cloud King, he had been instructed to become a destructive agent, to work towards the destruction of Earth defenses. His mind was left free to interpret those instructions, and he saw it as a command to become the opposite of the super hero he had intended to be. He had done pretty well as a bad guy too, within his limitations. I also saw that he had become something of a fist-for-hire amongst the bad guy community. He had been hired by someone who I didn't know named Morgan Santori, out of Tombstone, and his instructions had been simple. 'Go to Fort Richardson and raise a little hell, bust up some land marks and see what kind of response you get.'
Well, he had gone, and I had responded. Perhaps more quickly than anticipated.
"How long can you leave the truck there."
"Forever, as far as I'm concerned. There's nothing in it that can't be replaced, although some of the special tools I've built for working on the suit would come in handy."
I had the image and location from his mind, and contemplated jumping it here. It was larger than even Wing, but I heard Yoda's voice in my mind telling me to do, not try. I almost let the snicker escape before I suppressed it. Even as old as those movies were, they still could capture your attention.
I raised my hand, shooting out a ball of midnight force, and inside the swelling ball of inky black, jumped the huge truck.
"Here you go," I uttered with all the casual attitude I could muster.
"Wow!" Trey gasped. "You are something else!"
"I assume you have a sleeper cab on that thing?" I asked.
"Sure, and I don't mind sleeping out here in the middle of nowhere for now, if that's what you're thinking."
"I am, will power be a problem?"
"Not for one night. I have plenty of fuel, and it'll probably get cold enough tonight to have to run the heater, but if I don't have to worry about going anywhere, I'm good for a couple of days."
"What about food?"
"I could eat, I guess," he said with a crooked smile.
I had to laugh, he was a pretty scrawny individual, and in those boxers, looked even scrawnier than he really was.
"Tell you what. You go find some clothes to put on and I'll see if I can get us something to eat, and maybe some company to share it with."
"Okay," Trey agreed, heading immediately for the cab of the truck. I leapt into the air, zooming a half mile up before engaging a ball of blackness from which I jumped back to my apartment in Fort Richardson.
<Harvey, you free?> I sent as I began looking through the fridge. Nothing looked good, or quick enough.
<Yes, Midnight, and alone and unobserved.> Came the return thought.
I jumped Harvey to me, closing the refrigerator door and turning to give him a smile.
"I don't often see you here with your gear on," Harvey commented.
"Well, if you agree, this is just a short stop before I take you back to meet someone."
"Yes," I said, surprised. "Do you know everything??"
"Well, you were reported battling him in front of the Museum earlier today. It was all over the radio and emergency bands."
"Of course," I said with a laugh. I still tended to forget that Midnight the super heroine was newsworthy.
"Lord Steel it is, and there's quite a story there, but I've got to bring back some dinner. Have you eaten yet?"
"I'll say no if it means more food like we had the last time I got invited to eat with you."
"Hmmm. That gives me an idea. I'll be right back."
I made a quick jump to Meadow and picked up an order to go at Borthun's Rest, the inn Dad's friends Borthun and Yela ran as a front for the Legion's efforts to advance the people that lived on the eastern continent of Meadow. Their buffalo burgers were famous on three worlds and growing! I got them with the deep fried hash browns, which were a local favorite as well. I added a bottle of Arborian wine from my stock, dumped it all into my 'nowhere' holding place, and jumped back to the apartment. I'd have to grab a couple of bottles of root beer out of the fridge for Harvey.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," I apologized to Harvey. "I had to go a ways to get dinner." That earned me a raised eyebrow from Harvey.
There was nothing else needed except for a few napkins. I grabbed those as well and jumped Harvey and I back to the desert.
The sun was pretty low on the western horizon by this time, and I wasn't sure where we were going to be able to sit and eat, but the cab of the truck was dark and the back of the trailer was open and lit up. The big steel suit wasn't where it had been when I left either. I walked back towards the light coming from the open back of the truck, Harvey following close behind.
"Trey are you there?" I called out as I got close to the back end. The back of the truck had been lowered as a ramp rather than swung open like a door.
"Yeah. Come on in." came the reply.
The suit lay stretched out in the middle of the truck's cargo area, with several feet of clearance on the sides and even more room at the head and feet. The head end, towards the front of the truck featured a work bench which was clear of tools at the moment.
"Hi," Trey said from the workbench area. "I figured I might as well get the suit packed up and ready to move while I waited."
"Good idea," I replied. "Trey, I'd like you to meet someone. This is my friend and mentor Harvey."
"Nice to meet you," Trey said, offering his hand. Harvey shook it.
"A pleasure for me as well... Trey?"
"Yeah, Tracy was what I was born with, but I always thought it was too girly, so I started shortening it to Trey when I was a teenager."
"Ah," Hervey looked over at the suit. "And up until recently, you've been the man behind Lord Steel?"
"I was Lord Steel. That's just a suit, not a robot, although I do have a remote control that lets me move it around when I'm not in it, so I can get it into the truck, things like that."
"I wondered about that," I added, having pulled the food from my nowhere storage place. "You two hungry?"
"Famished!" Trey said.
"I could stand to have a bite," Harvey added.
"Okay, what we have here are buffalo burgers and deep fried potatoes," I said, offering each of them a burger and a napkin.
"Harvey, I brought a couple of root beers, because I know you don't drink, but I've got a bottle of wine for Trey and I."
"Excellent," the both of them said simultaneously, which got all three of us laughing.
"This is called Red Mist," I told Trey as I poured some of the wine into a glass for him. "Let it sit in the glass a minute or two, it'll be worth the wait."
Slow roasting buffalo over a spit was sure the right way to do it. Talk about tender, succulent meat! The seasonings were smoky, but not overwhelmingly so, and offered a depth of flavor that really accented the meat perfectly. The deep fried hash browns were tasty as well, and needed no ketchup or other condiment to make them go down smoothly.
Tender and succulent or not, the burgers were big, and it took a minute or so to get through the first couple of bites. By then the wine was ready for us and we were ready for it.
Over the meal, I got Harvey up to speed on what I had learned about Trey and his encounter with the Cloud King mind in the death sphere.
"Okay, I can see there are things about the Cloud Kings we didn't know," Harvey finally said. "but why on Terana would a dying alien plant these kind of suggestions in someone's mind?"
"What would motivate that one, or any one of them to do something beyond trying to kill their attacker?" I answered with another question.
"Maybe the Cloud King was trying to transfer its consciousness from that body into mine," Trey suggested.
"I don't think so," I answered. "The controls it left in your mind were complex and specific, and not designed to get rid of your consciousness in favor of its own. The controls were all about making you be a bad guy."
"You were in the suit when this happened, right?" Harvey asked.
"Yeah," Trey replied.
"Maybe it thought you were a super hero, and saw this as a chance to turn you to the other side."
"Why?" I asked. "The Cloud Kings were their own side, weren't they?"
"Aren't they?" Harvey correcting my use of the past tense.
"Maybe they're not working alone like has always been assumed?" Trey offered. "Maybe they're working with some of Terana's super villains?
"Crap," Harvey spat. "That makes way too much sense, doesn't it."
"The question is, is it a cooperative thing, between one or more bad guys and the Cloud Kings, or is it the Cloud Kings controlling one or more bad guys, like they did me?" Trey asked.
"It could be some combination of the two. There could be both cooperation and competition, and from both sides of any deal."
"So the next obvious question is," I paused to look them both in the eye. "What do we do about it?"
"Harvey, you have your way of being sure about the mental status of those super heroes you work with. Perhaps this is a good time to touch bases with as many of them as possible," I thought out loud. "How well do you know Star Knight?"
"I've met him, but its been a while. Since before the Cloud King events. Are you thinking he could be controlled as well?"
"If not controlled, at least sent back with altered memories of what he found."
"Ah, I could see how that could be possible. This gives me something to work on, and its going to be a long term project. Do the two of you agree that there's nothing we can do for now except keep ourselves alert to this possibility?"
I nodded and saw Trey do the same.
"So, Midnight, you are in the middle of an investigation. You'll go back to that I suppose?"
"Yes, definitely, and its going to mean a trip to Los Angeles. What do you know about the Praetor?"
"Run by a mystery man named Preston Miles. Mostly into investment and finance, but they've recently expanded into security for the very wealthy. An odd direction for them to go, I thought when I heard about it."
"The underling who hired the crew that set the trap for me was a low level executive with Praetor. He got his instructions from Preston Miles himself, and it was the only time he'd ever met the man."
"Your trail appears to lead straight to Preston Miles then. Good luck with that. He is very hard to get next to."
"Thanks. Don't think I can do it, do you?"
"I've already learned not to doubt you, but be careful," Harvey said with a smile. "Trey, I assume Lord Steel is no more, but are you getting out of the business, or switching over to the super hero side?"
"Switching, definitely," Trey answered. "It was my original goal, and I'd like a chance to undo some of the mayhem I've been responsible for in recent years."
"So no more Lord Steel, but do you have a new name?"
"Not yet, but I've been thinking."
"So have I, actually," I jumped in. "Probably a good idea to avoid anything with Steel in it, maybe go with Iron instead?"
"Like Iron Giant?" Harvey offered.
"Or Iron Man?" I added. Heck, it wasn't exactly stealing here, was it?
"I like both of those," Trey added, "simpler than what I was thinking."
Harvey and I both waited, but when Trey wasn't forthcoming, we jumped in together.
"Oh! I was thinking maybe the Iron Avenger?" Trey said hesitantly.
"Not bad," Harvey said, and I nodded in agreement. "I'm sure you'll come up with something, keep me posted, and once you think you're ready to go public, let me know. Midnight, I do need to be going."
"Top of the Chesapeake will be fine if its clear."
I jumped Harvey to the top of the tower, checking it first to make sure it was clear. I gave him a mental goodbye, and closed the connection. Turning to Trey, I gave him a frank once over. I followed that with an exam using my Light senses. He was healthy, if a little underfed. I washed a little Light through him, and pulled my goggles and mask off.
"Trey, how long has it been for you?"
What was it about frail, sad puppy kind of men that flipped my switch?
"Okay, try it again," I hollered. "I think the glitch was in that power coupler."