Chapter 1

The man looked up, trying to see who was disturbing him at this ungodly hour.  He squinted in the subdued light, trying to make out who was standing in the doorway.  He was able to discern three figures standing in the shadows.  One of the figures stepped forward and said, "Hey, Jimbo!  Remember me?"

The gleam of recognition finally appeared in Jim's eye.  "Uh, hi," he said nervously.

The other two men stepped forward into the light of the room.  They were both big, burly men.  One held a weapon of some sort in his hand; the other had what looked like some very thick, durable cable.  The leader of the three commandeered Jim's attention once again.  "You owe me some money, I think,"  he announced as he looked casually at his fingernails.

Jim was now getting very nervous.  "But, I-I don't have the money," he stammered.

The leader looked up, his eyebrows scrunched together in a confused expression. "Why not?"

"I d-didn't think that you, that is, that you were-"

"That I was still around?" the leader finished, raising his eyebrows.

Jim nodded shakily.

"Well, I obviously am," the leader said, smiling broadly.  "And I need your payment."

"I don't have it," Jim said again.

"Well, now, that's too bad," the leader said.  He snapped his fingers.  The man with the cable stepped around him and up to Jim.  Jim held still as the man wrapped the cable around him, strapping him to the chair.  "You see," the leader continued, "I was gone for a little while, true.  But now I'm back.  I need to collect on my debts.  And I just don't believe you." 

Again he snapped his fingers, the cue for the second man to advance.  The second man raised the object that Jim had mistaken for a weapon and pressed an ignition switch.  A six-inch-long blue flame grew to life.  The man advanced on Jim, waving the flame around in front of him.

"I don't have the money!" Jim yelled.

Smiling, the leader watched as the flame moved ever nearer to Jim's face.  When the flame was mere inches away and Jim's face was starting to feel the heat of the flame, he screamed again, "I swear I don't have the money!"

The leader's smile slowly faded from his face.  It was impossible to tell what his reaction was otherwise, for the dark glasses he was wearing obscured his eyes.  "Enough."  The flame-wielder clicked off the flame and retreated back to the leader's side.  "Don't let it be said that I'm merciless.  But I give you one week to get the money, or, well, you just might have a nasty accident," he finished, smiling mirthlessly.  He spun on his heel and walked away briskly, followed closely by his two companions. 

After they had left, Jim breathed a sigh of relief.  Then he remembered that he was still bound by the cable.  "Help!" he yelled.  "Help!"

"Chilly night out," James commented as he rubbed his hands together.  The rubbing was more out of reflex than necessity, considering that he was wearing electric gloves and his hands were sufficiently warm.

Beside him, Wil nodded in agreement.  They were keeping watch on a suspected drug dealer's hideout.  Ryan and Brent were at the back of the building, closely watching the rear entrance.  Even through the lined coat, gloves, and jeans, Wil imagined that he could still feel the unseasonably cold November wind cutting through to him.  The thermometer read twenty degrees, but the wind chill knocked the temperature below zero.  And the night wasn't even half over yet.

A movement from the exit to the building caught Wil's attention,  "You got a lock on him?" he asked James.

"Yes," James answered.  He was holding a small device, a scanner capable of detecting different chemical signatures; he had set it for the detection of any illegal drugs.  It wouldn't matter if they were concealed, disguised, or otherwise, as the scanner would still be able to detect it.  "Positive identification.  He's got a quarter kilo of crack and some other unknown drug on him that weren't there when he went in."

"Good enough for me," Wil said.  He brought up his stun rifle and lowered it at the man, aiming carefully.  He squeezed off a short burst.  The mostly-invisible beam of light hit its target.  The man dropped to the ground, twitching and unconscious.

Wil leaped to his feet, quickly trotted over to the man, relieved him of his drugs, and cuffed him.  He beckoned James over to carry the drugs back to the van, and carried the man himself.  James set the drugs near the main computer console in the back end.  Wil laid the man down next to them.

James touched a button on the console to contact Ryan and Brent.  "Ryan, James here."

"Ryan here," came the reply over the van's loudspeaker.

"The bust is a go."

"Out," Ryan responded.  He turned to Brent.  "Ready?"

Brent nodded.  They both took out their weapons and moved to the back door of the building.  Brent tried the door.  Surprisingly, it was unlocked.  The entered quietly and cautiously.  The room they found themselves in was darkened.  They could feel a throbbing bass beat throughout the entire house.  The actual music, very loud, was the next thing they noticed, all but unrecognizable over the beat.

Ryan stepped forward and snapped something as he stepped down.  Even over the thundering music, it sounded loud to Ryan's ears.

Evidently it sounded loud to someone else's ears, too.  

"What was that?" came a woman's voice.

"I don't know," came the confused reply of a man's voice.

Brent had the presence of mind to find and flick on the light switch.  Ryan immediately lowered his rifle at the location of the voices.  He saw two people in their late teens or early twenties, reclining on the floor in various states of undress.  A couple of empty beer bottles were at their feet.  The woman screamed and covered herself as the man jumped to his feet and tried to run.  He came to a stop when he saw Brent with his pistol trained on him.

"We didn't do nothing," the woman said, shaking.

"Quiet and no one gets hurt," Ryan ordered in a low, commanding voice, barely audible over the music.

"We didn't do anything," the man protested.

Keeping his eyes and rifle trained on the two, Ryan reached down and picked up the object he had stepped on, a crack pipe.  He took a look at it, then gestured at the man.  "You weren't doing anything?"

The man's face reddened.

"Stay here," Ryan told Brent.  "Call James," he said as he exchanged weapons so as to have the unobtrusive pistol.

Ryan cautiously stepped out into the corridor.  The music was instantly louder as he left the relative quiet of the entry room.  Ryan slid the pistol into an easily accessible pocket.  He strode down the corridor with its couples pressed up against each other, kissing, smoking, gyrating to the music.  At the end of the hallway, he stepped into the main room and saw dozens of college-age people dancing to the music, which sounded to Ryan like some kind of older electronica, maybe jungle from a decade before.

As he scanned the party scene, Ryan wondered how he was going to be able to pick out the kingpin behind all of this.  Then he noticed that a large-framed man, bigger than Ryan, with a crewcut, dark sunglasses, and a business suit had noticed him.  He waded through the dancing people and grabbed Ryan's arm in a viselike grip.  He put his mouth up to Ryan's ear.  "Come with me."

Ryan did as he was told.  He went up the back stairs with the man prodding him all the way.  Two more similar-looking men stood outside a door at the end of a hallway on the second story.

"Who's that?" one of them asked.

"I don't know," Ryan's captor answered.  "Don't look like he belongs here, though."

"No, he doesn't," the other agreed.

"So you think we should take him to Mr. Doe?" the captor asked.

The other two exchanged brief glances and nodded.

"Move it," the burly man holding Ryan's arm commanded.  He opened the door and pushed Ryan through it, shutting it behind them and effectively blocking out most of the noise emanating from the party downstairs.  Ryan found himself in a large, lavishly-decorated room.  Cigar smoke permeated the room, mixed in with the unmistakable scent of a woman's perfume.  Together, they were an overpowering combination.

Next, Ryan's attention was brought to the large desk in front of him that occupied a large portion of the room.  Sitting, or rather, draped on the desk with her legs crossed was a rather attractive blonde woman in a rather skimpy dress.  And behind the desk was yet another large man in a business suit, smoking a cigar.  Ryan assumed that this was Mr. Doe.

"Mr. Doe, I presume," Ryan said as his captor frisked him and found the pistol.  He handed it to a nearby thug who handed it to Doe.

The man smiled as he accepted the pistol.  "See if there are any others, Jacob," he said.  

Ryan's former captor let go of Ryan's arm and left the room, allowing in a brief snatch of pounding music as he did so.  

"What can we do for you?" Doe asked quietly.

Ryan decided to get right to the point.  "We have reason to believe that you are the kingpin of a drug ring."

"And what would make you think that?" Doe asked without any change of expression on his face.  The woman slid off the desk and stepped around behind it with Doe, leaning against him.  He put his arm around her waist as he puffed on his cigar.

"We have plenty of evidence," Ryan answered.

"You shouldn't have come here, you know," Doe said, stubbing out the cigar in a nearby ashtray.  "That was a big mistake on your part.  It'll probably be your last."  The other two men in the room all drew weapons.  "Nobody'll miss you, boy."

"I don't know about that," Ryan said with a slight smile.  With a glance at the guns, Ryan said, "You don't frighten me."

The door opened behind him and Brent was pushed in as well.  He stood next to Ryan.  Jacob threw Brent's rifle to the floor.  "Long time, no see," Brent said casually.  His eyes belied his casual nature, though, as he quickly sized up their opponents.

"Yeah," Ryan said, glancing back at him.  Ryan could see reflected in Brent's eyes the certainty that they could take these guys.  The odds were slightly out of their favor, but that had never stopped them before. 

Ryan spun around and slapped the gun in Jacob's hand, sending it flying, then caught the man and spun him around, situating him so that Ryan's back was against the door, using Jacob as a human shield.  Brent dove at the legs of the man that had given Ryan's pistol to Doe, taking him to the floor as the third man in the room shot a bullet into the wall.

Ryan buried his fist into Jacob's stomach, followed by an elbow into his chin.  He collapsed into Ryan's arm.  Supporting him so that he could continue to use him for a shield, Ryan locked the door that he was leaning against.  There was really no point in letting two more into the fray, especially after that stray gunshot got their attention.

Doe stood up as he saw things getting out of control.  He reached for his own pistol as the woman dove beneath the desk with a scream.

Brent knocked the gun out of his opponent's hand, but only received a knee in the chin for his efforts.  He shook his head, but the other man got his bearings first and pulled Brent to his knees, punching him in the jaw.  Brent slammed against the wall, shielded from both Doe and the third man by his opponent's body.

Ryan grabbed the gun from Jacob's hand and fired it at the third man, intentionally missing.  The man didn't realize this, though, and dove to the side, toward Ryan.  Ryan flung Jacob aside and dove at the third man, pulling him to his feet.  A hard punch to the man's temple dropped him to the ground.

Doe watched as Ryan downed Jacob.  He didn't have a shot at him with Jacob in the way.  Then Ryan quickly attacked his other man, again using him as a human shield.  After dropping him, Doe realized that he had an open shot.  Though he was usually loathe to dirty his hands with this business, at this point he didn't have much of a choice.  He fired at Ryan.

Out of the corner of his eye, Brent saw that Ryan had taken down two of the four men in the room.  But he had to keep his mind on his own fight.  He groggily slid out of the way as his attacker swung at him again.  Brent brought his fist into the man's stomach, then kicked his legs out from underneath him.  As he collapsed, the man grabbed Brent's jacket and pulled him down, too.  His free hand whipped out a switchblade.  Brent fell on top of the man, quickly pinned his knife hand to the floor, and delivered a quick punch to the man's face.  He slammed the man's hand on the floor hard enough to loosen his grip on the knife, then again punched the man in his face, knocking him out of the realm of consciousness.  He heard a gunshot.

After the man hit the floor, Ryan abruptly realized that he was out in the open.  He quickly dropped to the ground as he felt and heard a bullet whiz over his head at almost the same time that he heard the gunshot.  He rolled to the side so as to present a moving target and tried to advance on Doe.  He somersaulted forward and felt the next bullet tear down his back, tearing his jacket for sure, and possibly his skin as well, though with the adrenaline rush he wouldn't feel it for awhile.  He rolled and found himself underneath the desk, face to face with the woman that had been on the desk.  She was evidently as startled to see him as he was to see her.  She brought her knee up into Ryan's gut.

Doe cursed as Ryan disappeared from range in front of his desk.  Then he smiled as he realized that he didn't know what a mistake that was and turned to Brent.  The smile quickly dropped as he saw that Brent had recovered his rifle and had a foolish grin of his own on his face.  Even as all of this registered, Brent fired, catching Doe squarely in the chest.  An incredulous expression crossed Doe's face as he crumpled against his chair and fell to the floor.

Ryan resisted his first impulse to hold his stomach against the sudden pain and instead rolled away from the woman, anticipating the knee to the groin that he assumed would follow directly after.  He caught it in his butt, instead.  He grabbed the woman's foot with his hand, but she kicked his wrist with her other foot.  A brief grunt escaped Ryan's mouth as he let go and rolled away.  He heard another gunshot, but saw under the desk that Doe was lying unconscious on the floor.  He turned around, saw the door splintering from gunshots from the outside, and remembered the two men outside.  A second gunshot went off and the door was subsequently kicked in.  As Ryan got to his knees, the two men rushed in, guns drawn, but Brent, standing off to their side, brought them both down.

A brief scream caught Ryan's attention a split second before the woman jumped on his back, forcing him back to the floor.  A jolt of pain coursed through Ryan's midsection as the woman delivered a devastating kidney blow.  A moment after that, he heard the unique sound of the stun rifle and the woman's weight lifted off of his back.  She landed next to him on the plush carpet.  He turned his head and looked into her face, seeing it caught in a momentary state of pain before it relaxed into total unconsciousness. 

Ryan sighed.  He took a deep breath and pulled himself to his hands and knees.  He looked up and saw Brent offering his hand.  Ryan grasped it thankfully and used Brent as leverage to get to his feet.  He leaned against the desk and held his stomach, getting his breath back.

"You okay, Ryan?" Brent asked as he took out his communicator.

"Yeah," Ryan said.  "Just need to catch my breath."  He shook his head as he looked at the woman lying on the floor.  "She packs quite a punch."

Brent grinned.  "Yeah, that looked like it really hurt."

"An understatement."  Surveying the damage, Ryan nodded to himself.  "Good job, Brent.  Well done."

Brent, still grinning, activated the comm device.  "Brent to James."

"James here," came the reply a moment later.

"Cops on the way yet?"

"Yeah, they said they'd be here soon.  Everything okay up there?"

"Well, I'm talking to you, aren't I?" Brent said with a smile.  "Did you get those two crackheads?"

"Nah, they were splitting when we got here," James said.  "I sent Wil after him, but he couldn't catch them."

"Ooh, big surprise," Brent said sarcastically.  He looked to Ryan and lifted his finger off the transmit button.  "You gonna be able to watch these guys on your own?" 

Ryan looked around at the figures in various positions, all unconscious.  Some were stirring a bit.  "Yeah.  Give me your rifle and I should be fine."

Brent handed it to him and picked up the pistol from Doe's desk as he pressed the comm button again.  "I'll be right down to guide the cops up here.  Hope you called for plenty of backup."

"Right.  James out."

Brent nodded and replaced the comm in his pocket.  He waved at Ryan.  "See you in a few."

A few minutes later, the door opened, admitting several policemen.  The sergeant stepped up to Ryan.  Ryan nodded at him, then gestured to Doe, still lying behind the desk.  "This man here is a major drug dealer-" he began.

"The call to the station told us that," the sergeant said, likely referring to the call that James had put in.  "Besides," he continued, "all the drugs we found in this place would have been enough to convict this guy anyway."  As the policemen cuffed the unconscious prisoners, the sergeant nodded, mostly to himself.  "We've been trying to find this guy for awhile now.  Been wondering where all the drugs in this area have been coming from.  Thanks for the help."

"Not a problem," Ryan said.  "You can handle things from here?"

"Sure thing."

"Then we'll be going," Ryan said.

Ryan and Brent got into the van.  Ryan was still being careful with his stomach.  James was seated at the console in back and Wil was in the gunner's chair, as usual.  "So what tipped you guys off for sure that this was the right place?" Ryan asked.

"A guy came out with some drugs on him that he didn't have when he went in," Wil said.  "Crack and something else."

"What was the other drug?"

Wil shrugged.

Ryan glanced at James.

"I don't know, either," James confessed.  "I've never seen it before."

"Did you get a sample of it to analyze back at the base before the police took off with it?" Ryan asked.

James jerked his head at Wil, who grinned and lifted up a small vial.  "But of course."

Ryan nodded.  He leaned back in his chair, awaiting the next call to action.  Meanwhile, though, he wrinkled his nose, wondering if he'd ever get that cigar-and-perfume stench out of his jacket.

Chapter 2

Sean swiveled in his chair as Jay entered the room one minute before six.  "Morning."

"Good morning," Jay replied as he yawned.  He sat down in front of the security area of the communications center.  He ran through the maunal check of the security cameras stationed throughout the base, running basically on autopilot himself.  As usual, everything came up fine.  He then moved over and sat in the seat near Sean, in front of the huge comm monitor.  "Anything major going on?" Jay asked as his eyes scanned the map of Kewanee.

"Not right now.  Earlier this morning, though, Alpha put away a drug dealer named Key."

Jay shook his head.  "Never heard of him."

Sean nodded.  "I guess he's one of the major drug kingpins, or so they tell me."  He shrugged.  "Supposedly the police have been looking for him for a few weeks, but I've never heard anything either."  He paused for a moment.  "I was going to ask you something, but I can't seem to remember what it was, offhand."  They sat in silence for a few seconds before Sean remembered.  "Ah, I remember.  They found an odd drug that nobody recognized.  They brought it back here for testing.  It looks familiar to me, but I just can't place it.  I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, so could you do it for me after your shift?"

Jay shrugged.  "Sure.  By the way," he said, changing subjects, "we're almost done with those intradermal locators."

A confused look crossed Sean's face.  He looked askance at Jay.  "Excuse me?"

"For communications?  You asked us to make them a couple of weeks ago."

"Oh," Sean said, remembering.  "I'm sorry.  My mind's running a bit slow this morning.  I'll have to run over and grab some coffee or something here pretty soon."

Jay grinned.  "Just don't grab the decaf again."

Lying on one of the analysis tables was the vial containing the unknown drug.  Jay was glad for the challenge in determining what it was.

Over the next half hour, Jay subjected it to several tests; after each test he recorded the results and compared them to the database.  After he was finished, he sat at the main lab terminal and brought up all of the data.  The chemical composition was unlike anything that he had seen before, or that anybody had ever seen before, evidently, as he couldn't find it in the local database.  It was determinable that the drug was addictive, but its effect was not as easily discovered.  Even after cross-referencing into one of the larger national archives, Jay couldn't come up with a match.  He reached over and tabbed the switch for the comm room. 

Ruben answered promptly.  "Yes?"

"Rube.  This is Jay.  Could you find Sean for me and send him over here to the lab?"

"Yeah, sure," Ruben said.

"Thanks."  Jay continued staring at the three-dimensional structure of a single grain of the drug pinweeling on the monitor of the computer before him.  He was hoping for some sort of revelation to come to him, but nothing did.   

A couple of minutes later, Sean entered the room and headed straight for where Jay was seated.  "So what is it?" he asked, coming straight to the point.

"I don't know," Jay responded.

"What do you mean you 'don't know'?" Sean asked.

"Just that.  I don't know exactly what it is."

"You've run all of the standard tests?"

"And some of the not-so-standard ones."  Jay shrugged, a glazed, mystified expression on his face as he continued to watch the image on the screen.  "It doesn't match up to any drug in our database, or even the national archive.  Don't even know what it does, but I do know that it's addictive."

Sean found himself watching the image, as well.  He smiled.  "Maybe it puts you into a trance if you watch this little picture here."

Jay nodded, still staring at it.  "Maybe."

"It still seems very familiar to me," Sean mused.  

"And see this here?" Jay asked, pointing at a piece of the compound that was colored differently on the display than anything else.  "No clue what this is.  It scans as something not quite chemical.  It's almost . . . mechanical."

Sean looked at it for a few more seconds, then stood upright.  "Could you download this to the comm room for me real quick?" he asked.

"Sure," Jay said.

Sean turned on his heel and left the room.  Jay transferred the data, then followed him out.  He entered the comm room as Sean was seating himself at one of the secondary terminals.  As Jay walked up behind him, Sean called up the information on the drug.

"What are you going to do?" Jay asked.

"I'm going to get ahold of one of my contacts in New York, a hacker.  Maybe he can find something out about this that we can't through the more conventional means," Sean replied.  He contacted the hacker almost instantly and sent the data along with a request for information on it.  He received a brief response to wait for a few minutes.  Sean complied and Jay took a seat next to him, kicking his feet up on a nearby console.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Sean received his answer.  The file was encrypted.  Sean tapped a few keys to electronically deposit an agreed-upon sum into the hacker's account, then received the password back a few seconds later.  Immediately after typing in the code, the information popped up on the screen.  Upon seeing it, Sean sighed.

"What is it?" Jay asked, leaning forward.  Ruben came over also to see what was happening.

Sean gestured at the screen.  "I knew I recognized it."

Jay and Ruben looked.

"Oh, no," Jay said.

"Wonderful," Ruben said.

Sean nodded.  "Well, we knew this time was coming sooner or later."

Ruben handed Jay a five-dollar bill.  "Yeah," he grumbled.  "I was hoping for the 'later'."

Jay stood up, sliding the bill into his pocket.  "What now?"

Sean shrugged.  "Not much we can do, until tonight.  So we wait."

The phone rang.

Jim jumped at the sudden intrusion into the quiet apartment.

The phone rang a second time.

Jim tentatively reached over and picked it up.  "Hello?"

"Jimbo!" a voice said over the phone.

"I got the money!" Jim said instantly.

"Good.  Meet me at the corner of 72nd and South 3rd in thirty minutes."

"In Toulon?" Jim asked.

The voice paused.  "I don't know, Jim," it continued, a note of sarcasm creeping in.  "Where are you now?"

"Uh, Toulon."

"Bring the money."  The voice paused.  "If you don't, this time things won't be so pleasant."

"This won't hurt much," Jay said as brought the needle to bear on Cop's arm.

Cop nodded as he felt the pressure on his arm.  The tiny bug was now in place.  Cop rubbed his arm where it had been placed and stood.

"Is that it?" Jay asked Ruben.


"All right.  Now we just have to hook up the main tracking system."

"We've got most of it done already," Ruben said.  "We just need to connect a few more wires, turn it on, and we're in business." 

"What about that other thing?" Jay asked.

Ruben waved his hand.  "We can worry about that some other time.  Let's just get this part going."

Jay nodded.  "All right."

Ruben checked his watch.  It was just past nine.  "Can we get that done in under an hour?"

"Yeah," Jay said, nodding.

In all, it took only twenty-three minutes to complete.  Jay flicked on the power switch and received a prompt.  He touched a button designated to pinpoint the location for all personnel.  Sean, Tyler, Clayton, Karl, and Scott were all in their quarters;  Ryan, James, Wil, and Brent were on duty, so were not in the building;  Cop was in the weight room; Jesse was elsewhere, not in the building; and Ruben and Jay were in the comm room.

"Seems to be working fine," Ruben said.  He grinned and pointed to the little dot that represented him.  "Look!  That's me!"  He waved.  "Hi, me!" he said in a high-pitched voice.

Jim looked around nervously.  He was a little late.  He just hoped that little error wasn't going to up the price.  He parked his car and got out, drawing his coat around him against the harsh wind.  There was a figure standing near an alley, leaning against the corner of a building. 

"I brought the money!" Jim called.

"Shut up!" the man hissed quietly.  

Jim shut up.

"Give it to me!" the man commanded.  Jim handed over the bundles and watched as he counted the money.  The corners of the man's mouth turned upward in a tight smile.  Unconsciously, he smoothed his slicked-back hair as he counted.  Jim couldn't tell what he was thinking, because he couldn't see the man's eyes behind his dark sunglasses.  They always seemed to be on, even if it was nighttime.

"It's all there," Jim said nervously, glancing around for any passersby.

The man looked up.  "I see that."  He stuffed the money into various pockets in his leather jacket.  "Next time," he said, reaching up and patting Jim's cheek, "don't be so careless about payments."

Jim nodded.

Awe grinned, looked up, and then floated upward into the night.

Chapter 3

Sean sat in front of a display in the comm room, his fingers steepled.  The display showed a map of Kewanee with four specific locations indicated, scattered evenly throughout the city: central Moline, northeast Kewanee, central Galesburg, and northwest Peoria.  He tapped a couple of keys on the terminal and the display split into quarters; Sean zoomed into each of the four areas, the street map resolving itself into realtime satellite imagery.  In each quarter of the display, one building was highlighted.

Most of the activity in which Alpha and Beta Squad had been engaged in the last couple of days had this as the final result.  Very carefully Checkwolf had probed throughout the city, trying to establish precisely where Awe was located.  This was as close as they had come: four caches of Awe's drug in widely-separated parts of the city.  Though they had discovered much, one thing they hadn't determined with certainty was which one Awe was currently using as his main base of operations.

Sean knew how Awe operated.  His Awe-Inspiring drug was habit-forming after several uses.  Sometimes he would then delve into dealing stronger drugs, if he was in a small urban area.  In a place like Kewanee, New York, or Mexico City, though, the methods that could be used to detect these "hard" drugs kept him from being quite so open.  However, since Awe-Inspiring was not officially recognized, it was not illegal.  Furthermore, Awe had invented the drug and spread it through the whole continent, in the process establishing himself as one of the major drug dealers in the world.  Through it all he had kept direct control over almost all operations of the business.  So there was little doubt in Sean's mind that Awe was in one of those four locations, trying again to break into Kewanee.

Sean leaned forward and tapped a button to contact Alpha.

Brent's face appeared on the screen.  "Alpha."

Sean took a deep breath.  "Let's do Peoria," he said.

Brent nodded.

"You know the drill," Sean continued.  "Keep it quiet, low-key, in case we guess wrong.  Cut off all communications.  Be quick."

Brent grinned.  "No pressure, huh?"

A brief smile graced Sean's lips.  "Do your best.  And be careful."

Brent nodded formally.  "Acknowledged.  Alpha out."

Brent's face winked off the screen, to be replaced by the grid of the four locations.  Sean's hand slowly, and unconsciously, balled into a fist.  He had lost Awe three times before and was determined not to let it happen again.

James cruised at a leisurely pace, headed north on 73rd Street. The destination in the Peoria district was at 7335 150th Avenue.  They were approaching that address now.  James turned on his left signal and turned onto South 150th Avenue.  He drove a couple hundred feet before turning left into an alley directly next to the building that was their destination.  He pulled off into a parking lot between their target and the building directly behind it.  He parked and turned off the engine.

Ryan was looking out the window.  They were parked next to the telephone pole that connected the phone lines coming out of the target building.  The target was three stories tall, the building directly behind it was two stories, the building west across the alley was six.  Ryan conjectured that the satellite was on the roof of the taller building, the one that faced on 150th.  That would be another major target.  Thankfully, since it was very early in the morning, traffic was very light.

"All right," Ryan began.  "Wil, I want you to go to the roof of that six-story factory over there behind us," he indicated, pointing.  "Take that jammer and get situated.  Wait for my signal to jam the satellite transmissions."

Wil nodded, grabbed the jamming equipment, and got out of the van.

"Brent," Ryan continued, "I want you to climb to the top of that telephone pole out there and put a plant on it.  Then come back to the van and, on my signal, activate it and make sure that nobody successfully calls out of the building until we're done.  Understood?"

Brent nodded, took the plant out of the storage area on top of the van, and left.

Ryan turned to James.  "James, we're going to go inside and find out if Awe is really in here.  And if he's not, we'll find out where he is.  Hopefully, we can pull this off without a hitch."

"I'm ready whenever you are."

Moments later, as Ryan and James finished getting their weapons ready, Brent returned to the van.  "All set."

Ryan looked at Brent.  "When I give you the signal, proceed with the jamming."

Brent gave a brief nod.

Ryan looked at James.  "Let's go," he said with a brief jerk of his head.

They got out of the van, weapons at the ready.  Cautiously they moved to the back door and tried it, finding it locked.  James soundlessly pulled a small rectangular object from one of his pockets, one of the new toys Jesse had found for them.  He slowly pushed it into the lock on the door.  The object deformed itself to the shape of the lock, with the unused portion falling to the ground below as small metal shavings.  The newly-made key pushed aside the tumblers as James slid it into the lock.  He unlocked the door and opened it.  They were in.

James pulled the key from the lock and tossed it aside.  It clattered to the ground outside as he readied his rifle.  They stepped inside the door and shut it quietly behind them.  Ryan took out his comm.  "Wil," he whispered.  "Are you ready?"

Wil quickly ran across the pavement to the six-story building.  He tried the door and found it unlocked.  He slid in quietly, though that wasn't much of a consideration considering the noise level in the factory.  After a quick look around he discovered that there was a staircase heading up situated near the door.  Stealing a glance at the man in the guard shack to ensure that he was still looking away from him, Wil moved over to the staircase.  He sprinted up them three at a time until he reached the top, and exited onto the roof.

He shut the door behind him and quickly moved across the roof to the satellite dish.  He attached the jammer to the dish and waited for Ryan's signal, thankful that he had his insulated jacket and gloves on.  He still shivered a bit as the icy breeze cut across his face, waiting to activate the jammer.

Just a few moments later, he heard Ryan's voice whisper across his comm.  "Wil, are you ready?"

He brought the comm to his mouth.  "Ready."

Ryan nodded, then touched the signal on the comm to alert both Wil and Brent as to the start of the operation.  Then he slid it into a pocket.  "Let's go."

Ryan and James quietly walked down the deserted corridors.  As they passed each room they checked to make sure no one was around, then continued.  While they were being cautious, they also had to move quickly.  If the communications were jammed for too long, they would arouse suspicion.  Not only would they probably have several people to deal with, but if Awe wasn't here, they would probably lose any opportunity to get him, as well.

At the end of the corridor, they intersected a better-lit corridor, one that wasn't dimly lit for the night shift.  Ryan and James came to a stop and peered around the corner to both sides.  They then glanced at each other, each giving a quick nod.  Clear both ways.

Ryan figured that they were near the north end of the building.  So he turned south down the connecting corridor, James following behind, covering their rear.  Now that they were in a well-lit area, caution was even more important.  It would only be a matter of time before somebody stumbled across them.

"Hey!  What are you two doing here?" somebody exclaimed behind them.  James glanced back and squeezed off a burst from his rifle, silencing the opponent.  The man slumped against a wall and slid to the floor.

"Hope no one heard that," Ryan murmured quickly as he resumed moving.

A bullet whizzed by his head.

James spun and again dropped someone.  "Looks like you spoke too soon."

They both broke into a run, every few seconds coming across someone in need of a good stunning.  They approached what appeared to be a security desk.  The man behind it stood fearfully as the two approached.  Ryan grabbed him by the throat and held him against the wall.  "Who's in charge here?"

The man trembled.  "Mr. Eberman," he said, his voice cracking a bit.

Ryan glanced at James.  "Eberman?"

James shrugged.

"Where is he?" Ryan asked the man, shaking him a little while James kept an eye out for anybody else.

The man pointed to a nearby staircase.  "Up there.  Top floor.  Room 313."

"Thanks for the help, mate," Ryan said.  He released the man, who promptly began rubbing his throat.  James fired a quick taser burst at him, knocking him out.  Ryan gestured for James to follow him.  They pounded up the staircase and arrived on the third floor.  They found room 313 quickly, as it was the only lit area on this part of the floor.  They stepped cautiously through the open doorway.  As they did, Ryan noticed a curious sensation, the hair on his arms and the back of his neck prickling up.  Just as quickly, the feeling was gone.

Ryan turned toward James.  "Did you feel something?"


"What was it?"

James shrugged.

"Hello, boys.  What's cooking?"

Ryan turned slowly as he heard the voice.  Although he had never heard it before, it sounded just like he had always imagined Awe's voice sounding, high-pitched and nasal.  He brought his rifle to bear on the man standing with a crooked smile on his face on the opposite side of the room.  His black hair was slicked back, he wore dark sunglasses despite the dimly lit room, and his leather jacket was partly unzipped.  "Awe."

Awe raised his hands in a gesture that seemed to say, Thank you, thank you.  "Thank you, thank you," he said, as if he were performing for an audience.  "So nice of you to drop by."

"We've got you this time, Awe," James said, also sighting along his rifle.

"Ah, kids these days," Awe said, frowning.  "Will they ever learn?"  He clapped his hands together and six people appeared, three men, three women, seemingly out of nowhere.  Upon closer inspection, it was evident that they had been sitting quietly in chairs in the corners the whole time.  All were perfect physcial specimens.  Ryan squinted as he looked at them.  Almost too perfect.  "Clap on!" Awe said with a grin.

Androids, Ryan immediately thought.  Artificial life.  Ryan hadn't been face-to-face with such lifelike robots before; they were cutting-edge science.  He'd read about them and seen pictures in scientific magazines, but he didn't realize that they could be as advanced as what he saw standing before them right now.  But, Ryan figured as he aimed his rifle at the nearest one, if they're this similar to humans, these should work just fine.  He pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He pulled it again, with the same result.  He quickly glanced at James, although he had already heard the clicking as James' rifle failed on him, too.

"Having problems?" Awe asked, still grinning.

"What did you do?" Ryan growled.

Awe smiled.  "Shorted out your weapons.  Ingenious, eh?"

Ryan, not amused, didn't respond.

"It's a shame you won't be able to touch me, yet again.  That's starting to become quite a broken record for you, I would imagine.  Ah, well."  Awe sighed.  "Well, I suppose you're still going to try to stop me, aren't you?"

"You got that right," James stated as he gripped his rifle like a club.

"I knew it.  So predictable.  So altruistic," Awe replied as he snapped his fingers.  The six androids moved toward Ryan and James.  "Well, do your best," he said with a grin.  The grin slipped from his face as he continued.  "Keep in mind, though, that your best won't be good enough."

"Three-to-one odds," James commented as the six androids advanced toward them slowly.  "Not exactly the best of odds."

"We've handled worse," Ryan replied.  He failed to add that they'd never faced odds like this with opponents that were likely their betters by a large degree.

Then, there was no time for talk.  The battle was commencing.

The first female android attacked James directly.  James prepared himself, dropping into a defensive stance.  Her first punch came in and James easily deflected it.  But before he could return a punch, her other fist came in and connected with his jaw.  Her reflexes were incredibly fast.  She battered him with a knee to the gut, then followed through with an uppercut.  James rapidly lost consciousness and fell to the floor, out cold.

At that instant, Ryan knew he was in trouble.  He saw James fall to the ground within seconds of the first punch.  He set himself defensively, just as James had.  A female attacked him as well.  He easily warded off two punches and sidestepped a kick.  So far, so good. 

One of the male androids came from the right side of the room and attacked.  He lashed out with a quick jab and connected glancingly with Ryan's chin.  Ryan quickly blocked the other punch that came his direction and rolled out of harm's way.

Or so he thought.

As he stood, another male attacked.  Ryan barely dodged the incredibly fast punch that came his way.  As he did so, he ran directly into the foot of another one of the male androids from the opposite side of the room.  Again, the blow was a glancing one.

Ryan was aware that all six were closing in on him, with James out of the picture.  He had a game plan in mind, though.  He continued to stumble closer and closer to Awe, acting as if he was, in fact, being hit in that direction.  One more female android stood in his way before it was clear sailing.

One turned out to be one too many.

Ryan was thinking too far ahead, not concentrating on his final skirmish.  In so doing, he made a cardinal error in battle: never turn your back on your enemy.  The remaining female android kicked him hard in the stomach and then brought the same foot up into his face, sending his torso backwards while his feet still were moving forward.  The end result was Ryan lying flat on his back, already unconscious.

Wil had been on the roof for ten minutes or so when he looked down to the center window on the upper floor of the building beneath him.  It was the only room with lights on in it.  He saw a man standing there.  For the most part, Wil ignored him, busying himself by looking in the other windows instead.

He ignored him, that is, until the three windows in that room were opened to the cold night air.  Out of the left one, three women climbed out and floated off, three men out of the right window, and out of the center, just one man.  It took Wil a couple of seconds, after the initial shock, to realize that the man in the center was Awe.  When he did, he whipped out his pistol and started firing.  Awe looked up at him, easily dodging the bolts that sizzled through the air, all the while wearing a mocking grin.  Before long, he was up and out of range.  Wil quickly retrieved the jammer and rushed down to the alley, again, as quietly as possible.

When he got there, he pulled out his grapple gun and shot it up, latching it onto the roof directly above the still-open center third-story window.  As soon as it caught, Wil pressed the switch to reel in the cable.  He was brought upward.  When he was even with the window, he pressed the switch again, halting the reeling action, and slipped through the window.

On the floor, near him, on the other side of the desk there, Ryan lay unconscious.  Near the doorway to the room, James was unconscious as well.  No wonder, Wil thought.  Seven-to-two odds.  They never had a chance.  Wil checked Ryan for a pulse, then started waking him up.  Ryan stirred and Wil moved over to awaken James.

Ryan sat up and massaged his jaw, which ached considerably.  "Where's Awe?" was the first question out of his mouth.

Wil turned to him as he helped James sit up.  "He got away, along with six other people."

Ryan laughed to himself, a brief exhalation of air.  "They were androids."  He rubbed his chin.  "Ouch."

Brent heard the distinct sound of a stun pistol discharge coming from the other side of the building.  He jumped out the open back door and looked up.  He saw seven people floating away.  Even at this distance, he could recognize one of them as Awe.  Brent aimed with his pistol, but saw that he was too distant.  Besides, even if he managed to hit one of them, they would fall to their death.  Maybe, Brent thought as he holstered his pistol.  Who knows how that freaky drug works? 

Instead, Brent stepped back into the van and sat at the comm console.  He called headquarters.

Sean's face appeared onscreen.  "HQ."

"HQ, Alpha here.   Sean, Awe got away.  Might be a good idea to get the police to raid all four areas."

"What happened?"

Brent shook his head.  "No idea.  They haven't come back yet."

"Check on them, will you?"

Brent nodded.  "Alpha out."  Sean's face disappeared and Brent took out his pocket comm.  "Ryan, James, Wil?  Anybody there?"

"You did your best," Sean said.  Although he was definitely feeling the frustration that was so evident on Ryan as he paced, Sean did his best to control his features, remaining seated.

"Yeah, well we still failed," Ryan retorted.  He finally sat down.  It was two-fifteen in the afternoon and Ryan had been awake for a little over an hour now.

"There was no way you could have been prepared for what he threw at you," Sean reasoned, trying to convince himself as much as he tried to convince the dejected Ryan.

Ryan nodded.  "I know, I know . . . here," he said, pointing at his temple.  "I still can't shake the feeling that we could have done more."

Sean nodded.  "We'll get him next time."

Ryan all but snorted.  "Yeah.  Next time."  He excused himself and left Sean's office.

Sean propped his feet up on his desk.  Awe's success rate was nothing short of astounding.  And infuriating.  For the fourth time now, and the second time here in Kewanee, Awe had managed to slip through his fingers.  Unconsciously, Sean clenched his jaw and made a fist.  It's starting to get old.

At least he probably wouldn't be showing his face around for awhile.  The police had cleaned out the four main stashes of Awe-Inspiring, and everyone was looking out for him.  At least we had a shot at him, even if we did fail.  Maybe a few more kids won't get messed up by him.  Sean shook his head.  If only there was a way to get at him, to know where he retreated to.  Sean shook his head again, and rubbed his temples.  That way lies madness.  We stopped him this time.  And there's always next time.

Next time.