Issue 1: Gremlins or Goblins or Creeps, Oh My

Several days have passed since that night Pablo and I talked; he is giving me space, just carrying on as though everything is normal. He had called with a tip about a suspected drug deal going down but, thankfully, for once things are relatively quiet.

Bobby called this morning to check, again, to make sure that I'm coming to the party. And to ask, again, if it would be one or two attendees. He barely redeemed himself by promising me some of the new walnut raisin muffins that he's baking today. The thought of those muffins is making my stomach rumble while I work, as I wait for my lunch break.

He managed not to go on at great length about 'Detective Dreamy,' a fact for which I am both relieved and grateful. Pablo is giving me all the space a person could want, and that's more than a little reassuring. I still don't have any clearer sense of what to do, but I decided last night to just... leave it alone. I think the more my brain tries to puzzle it out, the less my heart knows what to do. So I'll just leave it up to my heart to decide. It almost makes me want to sing that old Doris Day song... Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.

The last of the Howells collection was cataloged yesterday, so today almost seems like a holiday with nothing to do. Oh, there are the usual number of patrons out in the library proper, of course. But the work room is quiet as I process the shipment of Macmillan titles we received this morning, more than half of them from their Tor division. That's always something that makes me smile. I remember nearly every one of my English Lit professors having conniption fits because I admitted I enjoyed reading science fiction stories. For some bizarre reason, they seemed to think English Lit majors should only enjoy "serious" literature and that there was nothing in the science fiction genre that was "serious." Ha! Wrong on both counts!

Of course, even I'd agree that Scalzi's latest novel doesn't even come close to being serious. Well, not most of it, anyway, but we did order three extra copies because it's popular. That means people are reading... and that's what it's all about.

And thanks to Bobby the brat mentioning his walnut raisin muffins, my stomach has been rumbling for the past hour. I might be patiently waiting for lunch, but it's clear my stomach isn't. It's probably a good thing I'm cataloging alone in the workroom today. Fortunately, I only have another half dozen books to mag-stripe, then it's off to Panera's for lunch. I'm hoping their roast beef sandwich will fight off the thoughts of Bobby's muffins... at least until I can get home.

But my stomach really starts to work up a good rumble as I finish the last mag-stripe, so much so that I almost miss the vibration of my phone. And of course it's not my phone, the one I use for day to day communication.

No, this is the other one... the one that only certain people know about... the one Pablo had helped set up so that it registers through DPD and not to me personally. I'm pretty sure that wily Captain of his had a lot to do with that. Well, yes... he's always kept me supplied with the latest technology. But the geeks at DPD have either tweaked their system or strong-armed the phone company because when I call out now, caller ID shows Ninja instead of Denver PD. That trick is pretty neat.

However, at the moment I must sigh. It still is always a little unnerving to be getting calls for my alter ego when I'm working my day job.

Well, crap. This better not mean missing lunch.

I pull the phone out of the inner pocket of my jacket and unlock it to read the text message. As I flip the phone open, I just hope it's not from Abe because he's so bad at texting that half the time I suspect he's just swearing at me in Yiddish. Except that I know nearly the entire range of Yiddish swear words, thanks to him. I'm a little bit sorry that I make everyone text me, but answering a phone call in a library is just... well, it's a horrifying thought.

NInja/ Need you HErE now. Super Creap at UC in Boulder. Peregrin gone. Streke Force called. ABE

It's from Abe all right. I really like that rough and tumble sheriff out in Boulder, but the man has the typing skills of a ninety-year old with debilitating hand tremors. And yet he's an expert marksman. Go figure.

Peregrine is the other major Super in the Denver area, who — I hear — is a very nice man... is sponsored... and supposedly has a family and all that. Normally, for something urgent like this, during the day, all of the Sheriffs' offices would call him first, as he can get anywhere considerably faster than I can. But it seems Peregrine isn't responding... or something. It's often hard to tell with Abe. However, it does appear that Abe is desperate. Steak Force is probably actually Strike Force, DPD's high-tech SWAT unit. I've only worked with them once, but their commander is a former agent of EAGLE. They're decent folks.

I sigh again.

And double crap. Riding my bike to work seems to be a jinx. I should just stick to RTD from now on. Or ride the mountain bike instead of the Harley.

I send a quick reply to Abe...

Acknowledged. Be there ASAP.

...and another text to Pablo...

Needed in Boulder; let Strike Force know am on my way.

...and then go out to the reference area to track down my boss to let her know I need to leave early. Thank goodness Peregrine generally takes care of these problems during the day, or Mrs. Kumata would get dreadfully upset with me.

Though... come to think of it... he normally tells me when he's going to be out of pocket so I can rearrange my schedule to be free. Even on the few occasions something came up at the last minute, he managed to give me some warning. I sure hope everything's okay with him and his family. Well, maybe they just came down with that nasty flu that's going around. I probably wouldn't be thinking about texting anyone if I were puking my guts out. Especially if everyone around me was doing the same.

It seems Mrs. K is also feeling the letdown after working so hard for days on a new collection. She just waves me away with a smile, and a sincere wish that my friend feels better soon.

Okay, so I embellished the truth a little. Or a lot. Well, I pretty much took the truth and tossed it out the window, and made up a story about a sick friend in Boulder. At least the Boulder part is true!

I grab my helmet and backpack, then head out the back door, pulling the velcroed elastic bands from my pack as I go. Yeah, they're meant for bicyclists, and I wear them when I ride that bike, too... but I hate riding the big bike with my pant hems flapping in the wind.

At this time of day, traffic on Broadway is light, so I make good time on the way home. Not anywhere near my record time, but the only time I'll ride up Broadway going sixty is in the dead of night. Once home, it only takes ten minutes to change clothes and braid my hair — which might be a new record — before Ninja is walking out Andrea's side door.

Oh, that's another thing I love about this house. Some previous owner had created a covered walkway between the house and the detached garage. A subsequent one had enclosed the walkway. The last one, who was a bit of a crazy person according to Bobby and the Realtor that sold me the house, had completely walled the area off. He enlarged it in the process, running plumbing and electricity through it — and essentially turned a detached garage into an attached garage with a convenient first-level laundry room in the middle.

It's also pretty damn handy when I want to get to the garage without any of my neighbors seeing me. Fortunately, the most inquisitive of my neighbors is at work baking muffins.

I slide my staff into its specially-made carrier and am back out on the streets... this time wearing my leathers. When I first started doing this Ninja gig, any old black pants were fine... but that's when I spent the majority of my time within Denver city limits. I did tend to stick with the leathers anyway; they're just more comfortable. As I started working more with the other counties and needed faster transportation than just my own two feet, I switched to the leather full time. The only article of clothing that would have the average safety-conscious biker cringing are my boots. While they are leather, and they do rise to nearly my knees, they're made of deerskin... and the soles are absolutely flat and no thicker than moccasins. Sergeant Davis out in Jefferson County commented on their fashionable look the first time she saw them. She seems to think Ninja should be the Super that sets fashion trends for Supers everywhere. Davis is a little... well, not really crazy. Exuberant maybe.

No, I don't wear them because they're fashionable. They just happen to be the only footwear I've found that can withstand a blast of qi passing through them. I believe Sergeant Davis was heartbroken at the news.

Eighth Avenue traffic is heavier than normal... the City is doing some kind of construction on Colfax again, so all the westbound traffic between University and Kalamath is funneled to Eighth. Still, everyone is moving at the posted speed limit. Once I get on I-25, however, I crank the speed up considerably. The posted limit at this point is fifty-five. I'm doing ninety by the time I reach the exit for Boulder and have to slow down a bit... even I won't take that ramp at anything higher than sixty. But once I get to Colorado 36, I push it up to ninety — close to a hundred in some places — all the way up to the exit for CU.

One might get the impression from my extremely illegal speeds that the police are rather lackadaisical about the posted speed limits along the Front Range. One who attempts to emulate my madcap dashes about town will quickly find themselves with a ticket, to which will be attached a very hefty fine. One also might find oneself in one of the local emergency rooms. Without lightning-fast reflexes, I wouldn't recommend doing anything over seventy on the Boulder Turnpike... and one will still get a ticket and a hefty fine.

Fortunately, most of the law enforcement personnel along the Front Range recognize my bike — the carrier for my staff is rather distinctive. And if they have any doubts, and can manage to read the license plate as I fly past them, the plates are registered to the Denver Police Department.

Not everyone gets the message, however.

I had been riding down to Castle Rock one night and got caught in a rookie's radar. Now, when one of my contacts tells me to get out to their location pronto, I hustle. I don't let a little thing like one of their patrol people slow me down. Much. Apparently I've made enough mods to my bike that the Douglas County Sheriffs' cars can't keep up. True, some of the newer ones in Adams and Arapahoe Counties can, and I haven't had the chance to race with anyone from Jefferson, Denver or Boulder Counties. Anyway, I pulled up in front of the station, and there was a hell of a crowd out front, with Detective Forsythe in the front, arms crossed, grinning from ear to ear. The rookie, you see, had radioed ahead about the insane motorcyclist heading their way. I had plenty of time to pull off my helmet while Forsythe strolled over to my bike to thank me for the first smile she'd had in days before the rookie showed up. He looked so comically confused to see the insane motorcyclist calmly chatting with one of the senior detectives that even I had to laugh. I don't like laughing at people... it's so much nicer to laugh with them. "Rookie," Forsythe had said, "this is Ninja. See the staff in the bike's holster? Look for that next time." She had shaken her head and said to me, "That over-achiever is Althouse. Just started last week."

I hear he's doing well, is still an over-achiever and could make detective by next year.

That story spread, and if there are any law enforcement agencies in Colorado that don't know the story, they've all got to be out on the Western Slope.

Fortunately, I'm heading to the Sheriffs' station today and not the campus. College kids... ya gotta love them. But my bike is like a magnet to them. It might still be the summer term with only a tenth of the normal student population, but even a tenth of over 16,000 students is still a mob. It's best to avoid the mob who loves the bikes.

I hang my helmet on the handlebar and grab my staff. Thirty-two minutes from the text message to the station. Impressive.

I walk into the station and say to the young officer at the desk, "Tell Abe I'm here."

The young officer looks up from the paperwork he's working on at the front desk, and then snaps to attention, eyes widening just a little.

I hate when they do that.

"Oh... of course, Ninja, just a moment," he says, picking up the phone to call back.

"Don't bother, son," Abe says, coming around the corner from the back office with a mug of coffee in hand and a smile on his craggy face.

"Good to see you again. Glad you could come out," he says, nodding to me, knowing I really don't like to shake hands a lot.

"Always good to see you, too, Abe. One of these days, I'll ride up just for a visit." I pause, then chuckle and grin. "Just kidding. I'd ride up to see if any of your boys or girls could keep up with me on the Turnpike. And then come visit you.

"Can I offer you some coffee or tea?" he asks, motioning me to follow him toward a map on the table. It's a rather more detailed map of the campus than most people ever see.

I shake my head at his offer of a drink and look at the campus map. There are an awful lot of towns in this state that are smaller than the CU-Boulder campus.

"So what've you got going on up here?" I say, turning serious.

"Forty-one minutes ago, an alarm went off in the Physics Department. Steel doors slammed shut. Some kind of fancy security setup they put in because they're working on DoD research or something. Students reported that Professor Lindst and two of his associates are in there and that before the doors slammed shut, they saw a green-skinned... something inside there with them."

"What scenarios will set the alarm off and shut everything down? Have they ever had a false alarm over there? And... is there any way to get in there past the steel doors?"

There are green-skinned bad guys, there are green-skinned good guys, and then there's that wacky Banner guy who gets large, green and wrecks things when he forgets his anger management lessons. For all anyone knows, it's a visiting alien working with this Professor Lindst. Yeah, and why don't I believe that?

"I don't suppose any of the students has a better description than 'green-skinned something'? Or that one of them is an Art major?"

"I haven't the faintest idea what they're working on or what might set the alarms off, but I imagine that it wouldn't be good. The head of the campus police is at the scene, surrounding the building with his men. I was on my way over there if you want a lift. The report is a green-skinned humanoid, white hair, fangs."

"Well, if it involves DoD, they might not even know what they're working on."

Gosh, I bet that sounds like I don't care much for the Department of Defense. Oh, wait. It's common knowledge that I frequently question which side of the line between good and evil they stand.

"I'll follow you. If I need to move faster than my feet can carry me, I'll want my bike handy. See if you can get someone from Facilities over there... not the head guy, but somebody who actually knows the building in its current configuration. I haven't seen a school yet where they keep their campus maps up-to-date.

"And I don't suppose there's anyone from DoD in the neighborhood who's higher up than a file clerk?"

"Already called for the maintenance guy. He should be waiting on us when we get there. Army said that they were sending someone down, but nothing more than that. I would prefer to get this handled before they get here if we can. Don't want any damn Fed giving me any of that jurisdictional crap in my town," the old cowboy says.

He grabs his 12 gauge from the rack and heads for the door.

"Try not to break every speed limit in the city on the way there, kid," he says to me.

"Don't worry, Abe," I say with a grin as I follow him out the door, "I'll only break the ones between here and the campus."

And that means taking 55th Street down to Arapahoe and then over to 28th Street — interestingly, still considered part of the Boulder Turnpike at that point — then across on Colorado. That will keep me on Boulder streets for the greatest distance. It will be slower going once I get to Folsom where Colorado no longer skirts the main campus but cuts right through the middle of it. Professor Lindst's lab is in the Duane Complex, barely a tenth of a mile up the street.

I pull up beside the knot of campus police vehicles and look around as I doff the helmet, gather up my staff and wait for Abe. The head of the Campus Police is talking to the guy who must be from Facilities... the former looks serious and stern, the latter simply shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. Hmmm... do I sense a bit of dislike between these two men? Oh, yes I do! Fabulous. The rest of the Campus Police people all look like they'd rather be pretty much anywhere else but here. That, at least, is understandable.

Well, we can't let a little thing like campus rivalries deter us from making the world a safer place, now can we? I can hear Abe's siren — it sounds like he's just getting to Folsom now and ought to be pulling up in a minute — so I walk over to the two testosterone-filled men.

"Gentlemen, who can tell me how to get into Professor Lindst's lab without the use of thermonuclear devices?"

The men stop talking and look over at me — I can only image what they're thinking, but based on their facial expressions, it's probably something like, odd looking... but hot. Such is my life. The Facilities guy doesn't know me at all, but the head of Campus Police is frowning as if he's trying to remember something or put a name to a face.

"What do you want?" asks the Facilities man.

"And a good day to you, too. I believe I already stated that I wanted a way to get into Professor Lindst's lab."

Ah, such delightful people! Well, I really can't fault the man; people do tend to get protective of their territory, and apparently this building is his territory. Good enough.

"I don't want to hurt your building; I'm just here to find out why your steel doors slammed shut and a way around them."

I turn to the Campus Police captain, who doesn't seem to remember I was up here about five months ago when Peregrine was on vacation...

Vacation? Vacation??!? I need to have a serious talk with that man. Vacation, indeed.

...and took care of a little problem they had with an Unfortunate scaring the bejeezus out of the students. Poor thing; he was more scared than the students. Getting him a ride down to Commerce City solved everyone's problems, and he seems to actually be comfortable in the confines of the Unfortunates' ghetto.

"And I'm trying to find out why your alarm went off."

I look between the two of them as Abe saunters over.

"And I'm really very interested in learning more about this green-skinned, white-haired humanoid with fangs."

The Facilities guy looks at me and then back to the Campus Police guy.

"Who is she? Is she someone you called?"

"No, she's someone I called," said Abe as he comes over to the group. "She's a special consultant, so answer her questions."

The Campus Police captain seems really relieved to see Abe, shaking his hand. "Good to see you, sir. I have my men at the exits from the building. And the head of the Computer Engineering department is attempting to bypass electronic security and hack our way into the internal feeds of the security system so that we can see what is going on."

"Professor Cotler? Hmmmm. Well, if she can't hack it, it probably can't be hacked."

As one of the advantages of my alter ego's minor in computer science, I know many of the computer science faculty on both the Denver and Boulder campuses. And I know the backgrounds of the ones I've never actually meet. Doctor Jami Cotler is legendary... so brilliant, she's a little scary.

Off in the distance, I can hear several helicopters heading toward Boulder. By the sounds of them, I'm going to guess they're military.

"I don't know how to bypass that security system, Sheriff. The Army put it in with their own contractors. The only thing my men are allowed to do is grease the tracks every month," the Facilities guy says. "But... I'm not sure if they took it all the way up to the concrete roof structure..."

And the arrival of the military isn't going to make this situation any better.

"Okay, boys, one more round of questions. Abe, when do you expect the Denver SWAT team to get here?

"Facilities Guy, what's the location of Professor Lindst's lab... wing, floor, room number. If the Army put the system in..." I stopped to think... DoD, paranoia, not the usual half-assed job I'd be willing to bet, probably even up to or beyond the USACE standards and those were pretty high standards. "...for the DoD, I'd probably have to hurt your building if Cotler can't hack the system.

"Captain Papadopoulos..." Ha! Bet you thought I forgot your name, didn't you? " Cotler working on-site, or from the Computer Center?"

I glance up at the incoming helicopters.

"I'd rather not be standing around looking pretty when our friends in the black helicopters arrive, so... chop, chop."

Okay, they're standard military nasty green helicopters... literary license, okay?

"DPD should be here in fifteen minutes. They don't drive nearly as fast as you do," Abe says, chuckling.

I grin at Abe's comment. "Nobody drives as fast as I do, Abe... though Markensen out in Arapahoe County damn near killed himself trying."

"The labs are in the section over there," the facility engineer says as he points to the west wing. "The walls are extra thick there and it has backup generators and air filtration systems."

The campus cop smiles and shakes his head. "I wasn't sure if you would remember. Colter is working from her offices. She has all the equipment and access she needs from there."

I nod then at the Facility Guy. Science buildings ought to be built like that; scientists are always up to crazy stuff that can cause a hell of a lot of problems. I'm living proof of that. I'm glad CU takes their safety precautions seriously. I really wish those rockhounds out at the School of Mines were as safety-conscious. Ah, what can you do, right? "Campus Directory says Lindst's lab is on the second floor, room 237... that still accurate?"

I return the captain's smile. "It's the unusual names that are easy to remember. Let Cotler know I'm heading in, and keep me updated on her progress. Abe's got my number... just don't let him text me." I shake a finger at Abe. "Once. Just this one time, you're allowed to call."

And unless Facility Guy has a different location for the good professor, I'm heading into the building in ten seconds.



"That is the professor's normal lab. This one was converted from two labs on the first floor, right here," he says, pointing to the one corner closest to them on the tablet where I can see the building plan. Man, I have got to thank somebody for their mobile access!

Those military helicopters just keep coming closer and closer.

"Yeah, okay Ninja, let me get an update from Cotler."

"Hmmm. Well, closer is better, I suppose."

I look at the helicopters moving in.

"Make it quick, my friend... I don't intend to be standing here when the Army arrives."

I gauge the distance to the building's entrance. I don't doubt that I can make it to the door between the time the first helicopter is five feet from the ground and the moment Army men start pouring. Still... I'd rather not cut it quite that close.

Oh, sure... the Army is probably here to help. The men and women on board may actually believe they're here to help. Hell, they could actually be helpful. I'd still rather have as little to do with them as possible. Yeah, part of it is Abe's thing about jurisdiction. Part of it is that I just don't like the entity known as The Military. I'm sure ninety-eight percent of the folks who are part of The Military are wonderful human beings. It's that two percent who think war is the best — or at least second-best — solution to a problem I don't like much. Or the jokers who test nuclear weapons where the fallout affects people. And let's not forget the trigger happy paranoid folks who shoot first and ask questions later. Them? I don't like them. Nor do I trust them.

Yeah, yeah. I have issues. Who doesn't? What I've always wondered is how you can ask the corpse you caused to become a corpse any questions. No, no... that's not a rhetorical question.

I keep my eyes on the incoming helicopters while patiently waiting for Papadopolous to get an update from Cotler.

Captain Papadopoulos moves to the side and is speaking into his phone for a minute before Abe comes over to stand next to me.

"I get that you don't like the Feds any better than I do, but please try not to shit in their boots while they are here? Pardon my French," he says, gently touching my arm for a moment with his big calloused hand. His wide old eyes told me that my edginess over the Army arriving is showing.

Damn. I can usually keep things in check better than this.

I give Abe a crooked grin, though. "Not to worry, I can be sweet as sugar when I need to be. And it's not really them, personally," I say, nodding at the helicopters. "It's just... well, it's just their bosses can be pretty damn stupid sometimes. Know what I mean?"

"Darlin', you don't have to tell me how stupid their bosses can be. I did my time in Green," he says, snorting and shaking his head.

"Cotler said that she has a video feed, but the override of the locks could take hours," calls out Captain Papadopoulos.

Well... that sucks. Maybe Lindst and his folks have hours, maybe they don't. The entire University PD looks to be here; the Army will land before Denver PD gets here, and Denver PD SWAT will be here awfully darn soon. At least Abe could keep Boulder PD and the County Sheriffs off-campus. Well. The Sheriffs, at any rate, though the City and County worked well together up here... so, yeah. Probably Boulder PD, too. But that still left the State Police — generally reasonable folks — and the National Guard, who may or may not be reasonable depending on the unit's CO. The current one doesn't like to think for himself and tends to fling himself — and his unit — wherever the Governor points. Unlike the last commanding officer, which would probably explain why she got herself transferred. Dang, and I liked her, too.

The point being, of course, is that this party could turn uglier than a DU frat party... something I know a bit about.

"Hey, Facility Guy... first off, do you have a name? Calling you 'Facility Guy' seems a little rude. Second, there ought to be an intercom into the lab, right? No sense hurting your nice building if our green-skinned friend is willing to have a little chat."

I eye the Army vehicles; yep, they might be able to get into the lab lickety-split... and maybe even without hurting Facility Guy's nice building. But there are people in there and... well... whatever the green-skinned humanoid is. I really hate the thought of anybody getting killed here today, even if they are one of the bad guys. And if the Army goes in with guns blazing, somebody was going to get hurt, at the least.

Oooh, unless they've sent the Geek Squad. No... two helicopters? A top-notch Geek Squad would fit in the back of a Yugo... assuming anyone could find a Yugo to put her or him in. Yeah, there might be geeks on board, but there are guns, too.

Here's to hoping Green and Fangy is in a chatty mood.

"Sure ma'am, my name's Howard. There's a PA system in the building but no intercom. They did away with those with cell phones. I have the professor's number though. The captain tried to call earlier but no answer."

The helicopters coming in for a landing don't look like the National Guard ones. They're too new, too good.

The doors open and a tall man in uniform comes out, short graying hair cut tight against his head. Four soldiers get out behind him, all Special Forces from Fort Carson.

"Who's in charge here?"

"Okay. Thanks, Howard. PA doesn't sound terribly practical."

Oh, big pile of poop.

"Sweet as sugar, Abe," I murmur.

No sense going into the building at this point. An energy blast isn't going to get through a steel door... well, not before I'm exhausted anyway. Cotler has a better chance of hacking the door faster than I can blast through it. And without a way to talk... well, there's no talking.

And Special Forces! They have all the best toys, I hear. And are usually smarter than the Regular Army crowd. Bonus. Well, I'm not close enough to the building to get a read from the lab. But I can read the nice Special Forces people who don't wear their I want to get the hell out of here feelings on their sleeves like the campus police.

Since Abe's in charge, I'll just saunter over to Captain Papadopoulos, do a little aura reading, a whole lot of careful watching of everyone.

"You said Cotler has video," I say to him. "Everybody look okay in there?"

Abe goes over to talk to the Colonel, who's gotten off the helicopter and the two of them huddle, walking away from the down spinning rotors.

Another dozen Special Forces folk get off the other helicopter and started unpacking duffels.

"Cotler is setting up to send the secured feed to my car's laptop only. Three minutes," the Campus PD captain says.

I nod to the Captain. "Long time, three minutes. I might need to... pace."

Abe's aura is calm and steady, just like always. The Colonel's aura, however, is bright, and tinted in a way that I've only seen in those with powers similar to mine... and there are precious few of us.

Another Cursed? Well, now... how very, very, oh so very interesting.

I begin a slow walk toward the corner of the building Howard had pointed out as Professor Lindst's secure lab. I actually feel a little silly, with the staff and all. The Taijiquan cat walk looks enough like some of Papa Bill's dance steps... especially carrying the staff... that in full regalia, it would probably look like I was doing one of his Power Ceremonies. Well, except for the fact that I'm weaving toward the building rather than moving in a circle. But... hmm. Next trip back home, he and I are going to have a good long chat.

I'm just hoping Abe can manage to keep the nice Army folks off my back for a few minutes until I can get a reading from the lab. It's not like I'm heading for the door or anything like that. Yet.

Unfortunately, as much as I try, the walls and shielding are much too thick for me to get anything from inside the building. High energy power sources can interfere with my readings at times, as well. I have a feeling — just a feeling — that the walls are surrounding one such power source.

How incredibly annoying. I'm pretty sure I don't even want to think about what Professor Lindst and his crew are working on in there. A power source like that... nope, pretty sure they're not working on something that will give me warm fuzzies.

Abe and the Army Colonel start to head toward me as the rest of the Special Forces personnel finish opening the duffels and start suiting up in high-tech armor that looks like it protects the head and torso.

Cotler should just about have the feed set up for the Captain by now.

And all the high-tech armor the boys and girls are donning does not make me feel comfortable with this whole scenario. Okay, they're Normals — or close enough to Normal as to make no never mind — and even something fairly innocuous could hurt them plenty bad, and I know I don't want that. Also? They have cooler toys than Denver PD, so I'm a little jealous on behalf of those who serve and protect my town. Though the Strike Team's gear might come close.

I turn around and head toward Abe and the Army head honcho.

"So, Chief," I say to the Army guy with one of Andi's very best friendly and I want to help you smiles, "what's your plan?"

The Colonel looks me over — like one professional assessing another — then extends his hand.

"Colonel Jeffrey Masterson, 10th Special Forces. You're called Ninja. It's good to meet you.

"I have the codes to override the security doors. My team is well armed, but I have no intelligence on this intruder. The Sheriff tells me that he's unknown to you as well?"

Ah, a touchy-feely who didn't get the memo about Ninja and her dislike for shaking hands. Not a problem; Andi deals with this all day, every day. I just didn't think I'd have to keep up that little bit of a shield out here. Still, it takes less than a second to readjust the flow of qi, and I reach out to shake the Colonel's hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, too, Colonel Masterson. And no... none of the green-skinned humanoids I'm aware of have white hair and fangs."

As I shake his hand, I can feel something similar to my own qi flowing through him, not quite meeting mine; our qi flows around and past each other's without actually touching. It's probably a little like shaking hands with someone when you've always worn gloves. Masterson's eyebrows go up a notch.

I'm tempted to chuckle, but refrain. What? You're surprised? Tsk. And here I thought the Army would have better intel, especially the folks based in Colorado. Of course, I don't generally get anywhere near the Springs, so perhaps stories of Ninja haven't made it down that far. And, too, it could take another decade for the information I sent to the bureaucrats in Washington to find its way to the people who might find it helpful. I wish I could be surprised by that.

More likely, however, is simply the fact that Masterson has never come across anyone else with the same sensitivity he has to the universal energy. And he's certainly never met anyone as powerful as little ol' me.

See, Abe? Sweet as sugar. And not even a smart ass remark about somebody watching too many vampire movies. At least he or she or it is green, but if he or she or it starts sparkling, I'm going all Buffy Summers on him or her or it.

"Normally, I'd go in and handle this myself but the Sheriff has requested that you join us and, given the unknown nature of the enemy, I concur. We'll enter from three vantage points in two minutes. I'll take the front, my second will bring his men in from the side window. Would you care to go in from the rear?"

Oh, now that's a loaded question, and it's all I can do to keep from grinning. Sweet as sugar, Abe, and polite as a Southern Belle.

"Well, normally I like the direct, front-door approach... but it's your game, Chief. I'll play it your way."

And I will, too. Under other circumstances, I would be, ah, politely disagreeing with him, but it seems he can probably take care of himself as well as I can. He has guns, I have a staff... that's fairly even, as defensive weapons go. So, yes... in this case, if the good Colonel insists, I'll use his playbook.

"Good. We go in ninety seconds. Good luck," he says, moving rapidly as his men disburse to their pre-appointed positions, leaving the rear entrance to me and two of his men.

I follow Masterson's men, quelling my urge to move even more quickly.

"Conway and I will stay outside to keep anyone from escaping, ma'am," says the sergeant, who's armed with some kind of not quite Trek weapon... maybe more Battlestar Galactica. Or maybe just a ray gun from a bad sci-fi movie.

I nod as he sets up his weapon, and then I wait. I am certainly not impatient, but I am also not passively waiting either as I begin circulating the qi through my meridians and collecting a reserve from the earth. Standing to the side of the door, I extend my senses to hear/feel/see anything on the other side... and wait for the sergeant's signal.

He's keeping an eye on his watch to give me the time.

I'm not able to sense anything inside the building, but I'm fairly sure that there isn't anyone directly behind the door.

It's one thing to make buildings sturdy — I highly approve of that. It's another thing altogether to make them so damn impenetrable to the flow of the basic energy of the universe that an honest person can't tell what's inside. I do not approve of that. Right now, while I'm trying to see if there is anyone or anything on the other side of this door, I most definitely do not approve.

Okay, I'm maybe kind of sort of sure about the nobody behind door number one part.

The sergeant continues to watch his timepiece and calls out at fifteen, counting down. At zero, the steel barrier slides up, allowing access to the normal steel rear door. I can hear the bolt snap back as the locks are disengaged.

As I watch the barrier slide up and hear the inner lock disengage, I prepare for whatever's going on in the lab. Normally, I don't go walking into buildings as blind as I am now... it's just not healthy. But I've never encountered barriers like these before. See? Just another reason not to trust those DoD people. And whatever Lindst is working on here is seriously messing with my ability to sense who's inside and what they're doing. Oh, so this is what it's like to be Normal, eh? You know what? I think I'll pass.

Standing behind the door as I slowly pull it open will at least give me a few seconds without that infernal building material in the way to sense anything in the corridor. The only thing messing with my senses now is Lindst's... whatever the hell he's got. Still, it's mostly just giving me a stuffy head and limiting my range. And forewarned is forearmed, as they say, because I do need to slip into the building in any case. But I enter softly and quietly, like the hint of a warm breeze on a summer night, and head toward Professor Lindst's lab.

I reach out with my senses and, now that the barrier is out of the way, I can start to sense people inside. I'm still getting that high energy interference, though. Whatever they're doing in here, this is definitely not a place I want to be doing a lot of blasting. Actually, none at all would be good.

A storage area is just beyond the steel door, and contains crates, cardboard boxes, spools of wire, and other even odder things that I'd associate with physics labs... probably. What do I know? I'm not a physicist. I don't see anyone immediately in view, but now I can faintly hear gunfire of some kind from deeper within the building.

I'm beginning to think I don't care much for physicists or at least not the physicists who use whatever power source these physicists are using. Nasty stuff.

And guns? No, no, no, no, people! Guns are bad! Folks can get hurt when you start shooting off guns. Argh! Idiots!

Okay... get to Lindst's lab quickly, quietly, without being seen and without getting shot. Good plan... and when this is all over, I believe I will demand that Abe feed me waffles over at Village Inn. My stomach is reminding me this little problem with Green and Fangy has caused me to miss lunch. Well, maybe the waffles shouldn't be part of the plan; it probably says somewhere in the Super Hero's Handbook that you're only supposed eat in restaurants in your secret identity. Fine. Pablo can take me out then.

It's a good thing I'm not the type to get cranky when I'm hungry. Well, not too terribly cranky, anyway.

I can hear crashing and feel mild waves of energy — energy weapons? Why, people? Why? — as I open the door from the storage room into the first of the labs. That's not a good sound in a place with an energy source like the one these folks have here.

The next room is large, encompassing two stories of the building, and contains some rather sizable energy apparatus, which appears to be fully charged with power. I don't know what the frack it is, but I'm willing to bet that's what's wreaking havoc with my senses. From this close, I can even feel pressure in my head from it.

Looking over the room, I see one lab assistant on the floor. I can't tell if he's dead or unconscious — I'm hoping for the latter. Additionally, there are three green-skinned, white-haired humanoids, all of whom look identical. They're busy trying to operate the device.

Three? Great. And triplets, to boot.

Where the heck are Masterson and his boys? Not here obviously, which — with the way this day is turning out — probably means there are other members of the Green Fang family keeping them busy.


Well, my head's not going to feel any better until that power source is shut down, or I'm outside. And I'm not leaving this place as long as the Green Fang family continues to behave badly. I suppose just strolling over there and asking them to stop isn't going to cut it, not by the looks of things. And if Masterson is smart, he probably tried that one anyway... hence the guns. Great.

I take a cleansing breath and center myself while taking a moment to examine the... whatever they are. Staff strike, then improvise as necessary with blocks, kicks, punches, and additional staff strikes. That should do it. I have a feeling a qi blast would be a less than ideal solution in this room, but if it comes to that... well, use every weapon at your disposal, Doshu Ueshiba used to say.

I'll just think of it as the training tests Grandmaster Chen used to put me through... except there are only three of them here, not a dozen.

I'm in their midst before they even know I'm there, moving like the wind across the plains of the Nation. The staff twirls in my hands and strikes with crushing force once and then again, sending the first of the green-skinned creatures to the ground unconscious.

However, now that they've been alerted to my presence, the remaining two creatures turn toward me and swing quick blows. One misses badly, but the second one strikes me soundly in the jaw, snapping my head back and making me see stars for a few moments.

"Ow! Didn't your mother ever tell you not to hit girls?"

"Who the hell are you?" one of them growls, his speech a bit off due to the fangs.

The qi flows around more quickly in the spot where he hit me, and the pain diminishes almost immediately... whatever injury he caused will vanish soon enough. I stand in a defensive posture, able to move quickly in any direction... and that would including continuing to press the attack.

However, Green and Fangy seems want to chat. How nice.

"I'm going to resist my very strong urge to go all Hollywood on you.

"I'm Ninja.

"Who the hell are you?"

The remaining two of them are circling me now, fangs showing. The third one is twitching on the ground.

"We are Goblin. We are repealing the others. Go away or die," they both said at the same time.

"Seriously? Go away or die is the best you've got?"

I spin fast and swing the staff, aiming across the first one's knees with the intent to shatter them. Or if the little creep is sturdier than he looks, I can at least get his ugly little butt on the ground. Then I continue the turn while angling the staff up to jab the other one in the throat.

It's a blur of motion as the three of us move, strike at each other, and claw. They're doing the clawing, by the way, not me. And yet each of us is agile enough to avoid the blows of the others, and in the end, we wind up in combat crouches, ready to continue to do battle. They sure as hell don't look like they could give me a run for my money, but like most things in life... looks can sadly be deceiving.

"We need the energy! We must have the energy!!" they cry out and then spring for the door.

Oh, no you do NOT, assholes.

As they spring for the door, I give chase... though perhaps not with the intent they expect.

You learn a few things growing up on an Army base.

I wait for the moment they shifted so one could go through the door in front of the other.

One of the things you learn is baseball.

I dive at them feet first at full speed, at a slight angle so I've got the whole length of my body to use in my effort to knock them off their feet.

That's called sliding home, suckers.

I hold my staff in both hands above me, parallel to the floor... mostly to keep the green uglies from falling flat on me. But if I happen to damage some alien genitalia in the process, I wouldn't mind.

They are SO pissing me off!

I hit the ground fast and hard, bowling the two of them over in the doorway. Unfortunately, I end up with one of them on top of me, held just above me by the staff in my hands.

The goblin, thankfully, is totally surprised by the move and snarls at me, trying to twist to sink his fangs into my neck.

The two Special Forces soldiers start to move toward the other doorway to the store room from outside. They bring their weapons online as they move.

"If those phasers have a stun setting, now would be a good time to use them," I call to Masterson's men as I try to hold the goblin away from my neck. Apparently they have been watching too many vampire movies.

Now it's time for a little Aikido... using the opponent's movements and strength against him. Granted, it's generally done from a more upright position, but by the time you reach the rank of Kudan, you don't let little things like that deter you.

I keep my upper arm between my neck, of which I'm rather fond, and the goblin, and relax to use his twisting to roll us both over. The staff is at a bad angle, so I use my forearm across his neck with all my strength, which is not inconsiderable. At the same time, plant a knee in whatever tender piece of goblin anatomy that happens to be handy.

The second goblin is springing to his feet as the two soldiers aim and fire at him. One of them hits the goblin with a stun attack, but the second is jostled as they both try to aim and fire. The stun bolt actually fumbles and hits the first soldier, sending him down and out.

This is Special Forces?!? If I weren't so busy, I'd accuse them of being two of the Marx Brothers.

Okay, okay... they are trying to shoot the bad guy through the doorway and not accidentally hit the nice Ninja.

Instead, Green and Fangy and I are wrestling for position... my greater skill against his somewhat greater strength, and neither of us is very effective at the moment.

Okay, enough of this. I have other things to do here.

I feel the energy coil within me, swirl and coalesce. I shield my heart chakra as much as I can, then press a hand in the center of his chest as though I intend to push him away. Instead, I hit him with a qi blast, moving the hell out of the way and hopefully somewhere not in the line of fire of the trigger happy redshirt outside.

The qi blast knocks him off of me, and Conway isn't aiming at me. Bonus. I manage to get to my feet again in time to see the goblin get to his knees. He kneels against the wall opposite the door, shaking and moaning... but not in pain.

"Oh yes!" he cries out, eyes wide and he turns to look at me.

"Do that again!" he cries out, smiling at me and flashing his fangs in what could only be... well, let's just say that we're no longer in the PG-13 territory.

Oh, like hell I will, you creepy little pervert!

The second goblin fades from view, dissipating like smoke in a breeze. That's damn disconcerting.

So what's my sit rep here? Crap, one guy on the ground, unconscious... the other is bringing his weapon online again and pointing it at the goblin pervert. The goblin almost looks like he's daring me blast him... daring the soldier to shoot him. For his part, the young man is clearly uncertain about the situation, but he's about to pull the trigger nevertheless.

"Soldier, hold your fire!" Damn, I could sure use Abe and that fancy Remington of his right about now.

I don't care for this at all. They said they had to have the energy. I'm not sure the Army's super-powered phasers didn't make them just as happy as that power supply in the lab. And my qi blast should have blown a hole in that scum, but it seems to have given him a woody instead. Great. Just great.

"If you have a gun with bullets, you might want to fill him with them," I say to the remaining soldier. "I'll try to stay out of the way."

I step over to the side, keeping an eye on the goblin. I hold my hand out to it. "You want more of this? Why?" I plant my feet to take a neutral posture. If that thing wants to fight some more, I'm ready for that. If it wants to answer my question, that will be pretty damn useful, too.

The goblin gets to his feet and starts toward the door, out where the soldier is standing... the little creep picks up speed with every step it takes. Masterson's guy drops his pulse rifle and scrambles for the handgun at his waist.

"Oh, shit..."

Yeah, kid... I agree.

"Thanks, but no thanks!" the goblin cries out to me as he makes a break for the exit.

And I am after him in an instant, using any method to stop him, fair or foul. I'd prefer, at this point, a nice resounding crack on the head with my staff, but tripping him or a flying side kick would work just as well. Assuming I can get close enough to him. The sucker is fast... but so am I. Too bad I don't have a gun; it seems like he rather dislikes them. Army guy might have a shot at him if he can keep up with us; I'm not particularly optimistic about that.

On the other hand, maybe I can herd this one in Abe's direction. That's one powerful weapon that old guy has, and he's frighteningly accurate with it.

But hey, how about if we just not let this one get that far, eh? First, I'll try the good old hitting the watermelon with the baseball bat game. Pervy, Green and Fangy's head will play the part of the watermelon and my staff will be starring in the role of the baseball bat.

My first strike at the Perv goes wide and he slams a fist into the soldier's jaw — who, surprisingly, had kept pace with me. Perv hits the kid hard enough to break his jaw with a sickening crunch, sending him to the ground. Ow, damn. I know how much that hurts, kid.

However, my follow-up blow cracks the creep right over the head and knocks him down to the ground, rendering him unconscious. That's got to be at least a triple, folks!

I kneel beside the wounded soldier and gently, gently squeeze his shoulder. "I know it hurts like hell, brother, but I need you to sit up and watch that asshole, okay?" I help him sit up and make sure he has his handgun. "If that sucker so much as twitches, fill him with lead. I need to go back inside."

Giving the order to kill the goblin is no different than doing the deed myself, karma-wise. If it winds up dead, that's really going to hurt. If I find the other one in the lab dead, that's going to add to the pain. Thank the Spirits of my People I always manage to hold it together until I get back to my dojo. After that, all bets are off.

I slip back inside and head to the lab. My first task is to check on the health and well-being of the other goblin — if it isn't dead, make sure it stays unconscious. Task two will be checking on the lab assistant; I don't care at all for the idea of dead lab assistants, but that one is on the goblins, at least, and not me. Then I need to check on Masterson and the rest of his boys.

Things seem to have just quieted down here as I turn to check on the first downed goblin... only to find him gone. Not a trace that he was ever here, not even the blood that I was sure had been on the floor from the blow I dealt it. That... is... just not right.

The lab assistant is still lying where I had first seen him. He's breathing, he has a pulse... so that's good.

"Clear..." I hear faintly. "What the hell... where are they?"

What the hell, indeed. It sounds like they've all disappeared... like that first one I saw evaporating into thin air, maybe?

I head out the front of the lab, toward the voices. Before rounding the last corner, I call out, "No shooting at me, boys! I'm already having a bad enough day already."

And rounding the last corner, I say, "You've got one unconscious soldier, one with a busted jaw, and an unconscious lab worker behind me. Unfortunately, I suspect all three of the goblins I encountered have vaporized." I realize I don't sound particularly happy about any of that, but what can you do? I'm not particularly happy about any of it.

"Where's this Professor Lindst?" I don't add, upon whose head a mighty wrath should fall. I can't help thinking this is all his fault. Oh, I'd love to be wrong about that, but then I'd probably have to lay the blame at the feet of the Army.

Yeah, like that would be a surprise.

The colonel's uniform is ripped and he looks a bit battered, but he comes over to me, waving to two of his men to go secure the back.

"The professor is safe. I had one of my men get him out first while we tried to round up the six green guys inside here. One man has a broken leg, another was bitten. How are you holding up?"

"Fine, fine," I say, waving away any concern. "Well, other than the fact that the Professor's little toy in there makes me feel like shit."

Wait. One of them got bit?

"Watch your guy who got bit carefully. I won't be surprised if their bites are poisonous. Or worse."

"The medic is already starting to treat the bite and he is being moved for evac," Masterson says, coming over to lean against the wall next to me. He looks a bit fatigued.

"As to these things... or thing, rather, I believe it was a multiplier. Only one of them was the original. It makes copies of itself. Ran into one of those in Iraq once," he says, taking out an army green handkerchief and wiping his brow.

"One of them said something about needing the energy; that they had to have the energy. When your guy out back shot the one of them, he seemed to evaporate. I'm not sure if the ray gun killed him or sent him back to wherever he came from. And when I blasted one of them..." I involuntarily shudder at the memory. "Gods, what a pervert!"

I glance back over my shoulder in the direction of the lab, before turning back to Masterson. "It's probably above my pay grade, but what the hell is Lindst doing in there?"

"The professor's work is confidential, but I can say it's basic energy research.

"You want the medic to check you over?" he asks, looking at me.

I rub my jaw where the goblin had punched me; it's still a little achy, but even the itching has stopped. I'll be fine long before I get home... hell, probably before I even get back on my bike.

"No, I'm good, thanks," I say, looking him over. "You don't look so good, though, Chief."

"I'll be fine... just getting a touch old to be taking on three of them at once. Not exactly a spring chicken anymore," he says with a grin, pearly white teeth gleaming. Boy howdy, this guy believes in flossing!

I look back toward the lab. "Well, whatever it is he's working on... I'm not sure it's such a good idea." I shake my head and sigh. "No offense, but the Department of Defense plays around with a lot of stuff it shouldn't. Whatever that thing is in there is going to hurt a lot of people like me... and we're going to be up to our asses in goblins, pardon my French."

He studies me as I talk about the research.

"Yeah, I feel it thrumming along my nerves a bit, too. Guess our kind are just more sensitive to it than Normals."

"I guess," is all I say. No sense trash talking the DoD, they don't give a crap; no sense trash talking the Army either... these guys seem like decent enough folks.

"Where the heck did those things — or that thing, I guess — come from? Obviously from someplace that places a great deal of value on porn, if the one I blasted is any indication." I know I look disgusted, but come on... even the homeless guys downtown aren't that skeevy.

"No idea where they came from. Not yet. We'll need..."

He stops and looks toward the back where the two soldiers who had been backing me up are coming back with a zip-lined goblin between them.

"Sir, this one is solid enough."

Masterson smiles, glancing over at me. "Looks like you bagged the original. Good job."

"Well, that would explain why it tried to run when I ask Conway to use his gun instead of the over-sized phaser."

I lean my staff against my shoulder and cross my arms, looking at the goblin.

"What do you plan on doing with it?"

"Him? He'll go to the Vault after being interrogated. We have to find out how he learned about the professor's work, and what exactly he was going to do."

I look at the goblin for a good long time, trying to find that sense of righteous justice I normally feel for those who aren't Normal. It just isn't coming to me today. I'm pretty sure I know why, and that's a piss-poor reason to condemn the creature to whatever the Army has planned for him, no matter how humane they were. I sigh.

"Normally, I think at this point I would whip up some moral indignation — being put in a vault doesn't sound like a good time — but I can't seem to manage it."

I look at Masterson.

"You need me for anything else here? I plan to actually obey most of the posted speed limits back to Denver," I say with a bit of a grin. "So it's going to take an hour, hour and a half to get back."

"No, we'll contact you through the Sheriff to get your written report, but there's no need to rush it," he says.

"It was good working with you, Ninja. Perhaps we'll do so again... that is if you aren't doing time for speeding," he adds with a chuckle.

"I'm safe as long as I stay in my home territory, Chief," I reply, chuckling as well. "I'm sure the story about the rookie who tried to stop me for speeding in Douglas County has made as far south as the Four Corners.

"It was good working with you, too, Masterson. Stay alive to fight the good fight," I said before sprinting off to find Abe.

I find him out front with the campus police, coordinating with one of the Army people. He glances up for a moment as I head toward him.

The farther away from Lindst's lab I get, the less... off... I feel. Whatever it is he's working on, I wasn't kidding when I told Masterson it was bad for people like me; those of us who feel the qi of the world... who are hyper-aware to its movements. Not only does it make my head feel thick and full of cotton balls, but it seems to mess with my emotional balance, too. I'm feeling a little less... I don't know... vindictive, maybe? Oh yeah, they can have that disgusting pervert and question the hell out of him. But maybe I'll check in with Masterson in a week or so to make sure... damn, I don't know. The scum doesn't deserve to live at the Hilton, but he shouldn't be in a concentration camp or isolation, either. I suppose, despite the goblin's obvious faults, I still want him to get fair treatment.

Unless he gets all lewd and lascivious in my direction again, in which case I'd be happy to remove his naughty bits for him.

"Show seems to be over for now, Abe. One of the lab assistants was knocked out, the Army is taking Green and Fangy back with them, and unless you've got more fun lined up for me, I ought to be getting back to Denver."

Oh, another good thing about being away from Lindst's energy machine... I actually feel like smiling again!

Abe lets out an almost inaudible sigh of relief when he sees me come out of the building but keeps that rough and craggy look on his face.

"Well, unless you feel like rescuing a cat out of a tree, I guess that the Sheriffs Department can handle things while you go back to the big city and get a latte and scone or something."

I grin at him. "Cats don't generally want to be rescued, you know... unless it's a kitten that hasn't figured out how to climb back down yet. They're delightful creatures and I haven't met one yet that doesn't have a wicked sense of humor.

"And I'm going to get considerably more than a latte and a scone, my friend, seeing as you called me just as I was about to head out for lunch." I shake my head. "Can you imagine how hungry I am now? None of my favorite restaurants are safe," I say with a chuckle.

"Masterson is going to be contacting you for my write-up, so I'll get it to you in the next week or so." I turn to the head of the campus police. "Captain, nice working with you again. Let Howard know we didn't bust up his building too badly... maybe a few dings here and there. Mostly, he'll want to get Housekeeping over to pick things up and make them shiny again."

I half salute, half wave as I head back over to my bike, securing my staff and getting my helmet on.

I wasn't kidding when I told Masterson I was going to obey most of the posted speed limits on my way back down to Denver. I need time to think. Today has been the first day work hasn't been hectic, so between that and Bobby being just a little more frantic than usual about his party — actually, he seems a lot more frantic, something about inviting David's parents over, so yeah... ginormously more frantic than usual — I haven't really had time to think about Pablo, and what we talked about the other night.

I'm glad, mostly, that he knows what I'm doing in my off hours. I mean, I'm still worried about him, especially after what happened to Denise. And maybe even more so after hearing about his wife and son, but if he is willing to take that kind of risk...

I guess I need to ask myself if I'm willing to take that kind of risk. If anything happened to him today, I'd be heartbroken, just as I'd be heartbroken if anything happened to Bobby or any of my other friends. But if I let him past that wall I have... I don't know.

You'd think I'd be worried about my folks and my grandparents and my brother, too. But I was never really that worried about Mama and Dad, and Papa Bill and Tita Kai. They're so close to the Diné Nation and the Tribal Guardians there that it would be difficult for anyone to hurt them. More of the Cursed stay within the boundaries of the lands the government gave us than leave; many are considerably more frightening than I am. There are telepaths and precognitives and shapechangers — not the Skinwalkers, the witches who change shape, but true Changers like Billy — and wind walkers. Name a mutant ability, and you'll find it among the Diné, Apache, Hopi, Ute, Zuni and so many other Nations, thanks to all the nuclear testing done in the desert long before I was born. I was more worried when Justin went off to school in Chicago, to be truthful. That's when Uncle Leon told me about the Watchers. They're far-seers, I guess; they can get a picture in their minds of anyone they know, and can see what they're doing right then. They work with the precognitives to look at all the possible futures of people like Justin... people who leave the Nation and have Cursed relatives doing the kinds of things I do outside our own lands. There aren't really all that many of us. Uncle Leon looks so mild-mannered, you'd never know he is the Diné representative on the Inter-Tribal Council to coordinate protection for all the First People. And that's a network that spans all the Nations. It's not just the Diné, but the Lakota and Ute and Hopi, the Cheyenne and Cree and Apache, the Arapaho and Salish and Delaware, the Algonquin and Mohawk and Choctaw, and all the hundreds of other tribes.

So, no... I guess I'm not all that worried about my little brother.

I know I've always been hesitant to open my heart freely to anyone. For my family... yes, of course. That goes without saying. For Doshu Ueshiba and Grandmaster Chen... again yes. That was a necessary part of my training. But no one else.

I still have that little seed of self-doubt that tells me softly, but frequently, that I shouldn't expect that kind of happiness in my life. That I'm better off alone, that maybe even it's what I deserve. I don't want to give in to that nagging doubt, I don't want to hear it; I don't even want it in my head. Perhaps the reason it won't go away is that I have straddled so many cultures in my life. I was raised with the traditions of the People and absorbed Japanese culture growing up. I lived in the rural Chinese world during my teens, and finally came back to live almost fully in the White Man's world. And being immersed in a culture where those who are different are never really good enough, it's hard to remember my People don't treat the Cursed as pariahs. The Japanese try so hard not to be influenced by Western society, especially in that regard. And the rural Chinese do everything they can to make sure everyone is made to feel part of the villages in which they live.

We're called the Cursed because it's a Curse the White Man gave us, but each of us is treasured. It is simply another 'gift' from the White Man, like so many other 'gifts' we've received over the centuries. 'Reservations' that we can call our own because our own lands were taken away. Their languages so we could forget our own and be more like them Their religion so we would not burn in a hell we don't even acknowledge exists. And most recently this Curse, given to the Diné and Apache and Ute and Hopi and other Native Peoples in far greater proportion because they tested their bombs as far away from people as possible.

We didn't count as people.

Oh, yes... they had their Virus that affected them. Perhaps that was justice. Or perhaps not, as it affected tribes far from the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico.

Maybe it's the history of my People, all the First People, that leaves me less willing to trust. It's not my own personal history; I have had a good life, and no traumatic events — except for the Curse taking me — to make me unwilling to trust people.

I don't know. I just don't know. I just know it's hard for me to trust that much.

I know I can trust Pablo with my life. I know I would do everything in my power to protect his life because he and Bobby are the dearest friends I have, and I love them. As friends. As my family. But just as Justin doesn't know everything about his sister, Pablo and Bobby don't know everything about their friend. There are questions Pablo could have asked the other night, but didn't. Had he asked, I believe I would have at least tried to answer them. I'm not sure I could answer some of them, even if my own mother asked them. Some questions can't be answered with words; most people don't have the senses to hear the answers. But I would trust Pablo with the answers to those questions — at least the ones that I could answer, the ones that could be put into words.

But Pablo is asking for more than that.

He's asking me to trust him with my heart.

What do I fear? There must be something, or this wouldn't be gnawing at me so badly.

Perhaps it's that thing a thirteen year old girl doesn't even think about. Perhaps it's that thing a nineteen year old woman hesitates to talk about with an eighty-five year old man. What does my power mean for a relationship between a man and a woman? I don't mean the casual relationships I've had in the past; I mean an intimate and deep relationship, the kind of relationship where I must trust someone else with my heart.

I don't know. And I don't know who to ask.

It's not a matter of taking a risk to find that one person to shelter me in the dark of the night, as both Bobby and Pablo alluded to. It's taking a risk of losing control, of hurting someone I love — real, physical damage. It's risking damage to me. I have spent nearly twenty years learning to control my qi, perfecting my control. Is love worth that kind of risk? Is love worth losing control over the potentially dangerous energy coiled in my body?

I don't know.

I'm inclined to think nothing is worth that kind of risk.

And yet... and yet I see the joy Bobby and David bring to one another. In the light, silly banter they are always exchanging, there is love, there is comfort, there is safety. There is a connection that is visible when I look at their auras; it's a connection I envy. And I heard the passion and love and respect in Pablo's voice when he spoke of Rosalia; the pride and delight and love when he spoke of Juan. It was all there behind his pain, easy for anyone to hear who is willing to listen.

I want that... I want to feel a connection, I want to feel passion. I really do. But is it worth the risk? I'm risking so much more than just a broken heart. It's the fire and the pain I suffered when the Curse took me that I fear happening again should I lose control. I can admit to myself that I'm afraid. I'm more afraid of that than facing any of the dangers I've encountered since beginning my work as Ninja.

My musings are time-consuming enough that I'm pulling up to my garage at this point, having hit the small remote in the inner pocket of my vest. As the door rolls down behind me, I pull off my helmet and set it on the small table beside the door. I take the rubber bands off the ends of my braids and finger-comb my hair out. I've never liked the braids — maybe it's just the stereotype of Native women with braids that I hate — but it's the only hairstyle I can both wear with the motorcycle helmet and fight. Once my hair is free, I grab my staff and head into the house to put it in the dojo... then I'll need to change into jeans and a blouse... and then... food!

I have no answers for myself; I'm still left with only doubts and fears.

© Kelly Naylor and Ken Seggebruch