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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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So Little, So Late

Ira gave thorough instructions to the next-door neighbor's daughter, who had agreed to sit with Josh while he was gone. "And if he wakes up, make sure you press Record on the tape player," he concluded.

Her brow wrinkled. "Don't you have a StarSeed for that? It's digital and has tons of memory." She displayed her shiny gold plastic egg-shaped device. "You wouldn't have to worry about running out of tape."

"We don't have a StarSeed," he said. "I have to go."

"Don't worry, Mr. Feldstein," she said. "We'll be fine."

Ira hurried to the front door, taking his keys and wallet from the bowl but leaving the nametag. He glanced in the mirror, then looked down at himself. His best uniform was still in crisp lines, even if it hung on him. He couldn't help the fact that he'd lost some muscle in the past few years.

The bus trip into the French Hills was longer than he remembered. More stops, more people. Most of the old storefronts were gone, and as they were frequently replaced by townhouses in a variety of beige tones. Still, he saw some buildings he recognized: a few big stone churches that predated the big building boom of the 1920s, the massive apartment house he and Lizzie lived in when they were first married, and the original Guardians Aerie, now a museum.

When he stepped off the bus, he didn't have to look around for long to spot the massive, sprawling Gold Stars compound. The stately brick walls surrounding it were pure decoration over the real fortifications, constructed of force fields and cyberium steel.

The guard in the kiosk at the gate used one of the new genetic scanners on him, and Ira watched his records pop onto the guard's screen. Ira remembered a time when the hero team used ID cards. But that was before the Shapechanger Army, he supposed.

"Your passkey, Mr. Metropolitan," the guard said politely, attaching the slender, metallic sticker to the back of Ira's left hand. "According to the schedule, the Gold Star on duty is Sekhmet, and she'll meet you in the parlor. Have a nice day, sir."

"Thanks," Ira said, studying his passkey for a moment and then proceeding to the front door.

Doors opened obligingly for him, buiding him inside and into the parlor. A kindly feminine computer voice suggested that perhaps he would like coffee or tea, which was in the cabinet in the corner of the room.

He didn't wait very long, sitting in the deceptive blue chair that looked like an overstuffed armchair but was really as hard and uncomfortable as the benches at the Y. The door in the back of the parlor opened, and a tall, dark-skinned woman in a neat pinstriped suit stepped through. Her hair was quite short, lying in tight curls against her scalp, and she was striking, with high cheekbones and a long, patrician nose. "Mr. Metropolitan?" she said, her slight accent injecting a small roll at the 'r'. "I am Sekhmet."

He nodded, swallowing hard and summoning a smile. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"We try to make time for those who have served before us," she said. "Why don't you come into the office?"

He tried to keep his back as straight as hers as he followed her. She gestured him into a chair and sat in a chair opposite him. The small coffee table between them was set with a silver tea service. She poured out the tea.

He fidgeted slightly, but waited for his teacup. He preferred to have something to occupy his hands for this, otherwise, he suspected, his hands would wander around aimlessly, twitching like an old man's.

She handed over his cup. "How can I help you?"

"Well," he said, peering down into the dark tea. "I expect you know about my son, Josh. He was the Bronze Guardian, before the present one, I mean."

She nodded. "Yes. He stopped Skywraith when he absorbed the Godstuff, as I recall. I wasn't active at the time, but I remember the stories."

He nodded too. "Well, yes, he's been in a coma ever since the Iron... I mean, Skywraith, and we -- his wife and I -- have been taking care of him. Well, to make a long story short, he woke up the other day, and..."

"He woke up?" Sekhmet said, half-starting from her chair. "Why hasn't anyone been notified? I always assumed we'd hear..."

"Well, heh heh, he fell back into a coma almost immediately," Ira said uncomfortably. The china rattled in his hands, and he set the teacup down quickly. "He woke up, spoke to me, and then he was gone again."

Sekhmet settled back into her chair, frowning. "I see."

Ira caught himself starting to wring his hands. "You see, he told me that the reason he's been comatose is that he's helping to fight an enemy called the Mind Marauders. They're getting closer to Earth, and he wanted me to warn people."

"I see," she said again. "Did he give you any details?"

"He said they were psychic vampires," Ira said. "That there was an army of them moving through what Josh called Psychespace, which is a dimension that... that rides along with ours. Like, you know, the Positive and Negative Planes."

"Hmm," Sekhmet said, pulling a palmtop out of the inner pocket of her suitcoat and making some notes. "And does your son have allies?"

Ira nodded. "He said there were warriors of many worlds there with him who had been recruited by some... some... oh, damn, I can't remember the name." He clutched at his forehead, brow furrowed. "Damn this brain of mine."

"That's all right, Mr. Metropolitan," Sekhmet said. "I can contact the known telepathic and astral-traveling heroes and see if any of them have encountered Psychespace. Did he tell you anything else?"

"No," Ira said, shaking his head. "He went away again before I could ask any questions."

Sekhmet was sympathetic. "Well, you've done just what he asked, Mr. Metropolitan. Thank you. You can leave it in our hands now."

They stood up and shook hands, and Sekhmet showed him out, one hand warm on his shoulder. She patted his back as they parted.

As Ira passed through the gate, the guard nodded and the shiny sticker dissolved into water. Ira shook it off his hand and smiled at the street as he made his way to the bus stop on the other side of the street.

His eyes stung a little as he stared at the Gold Star compound. It had been a long, long time since he'd been back in the game. He hadn't realized how much he missed it: the bright colors and strong bodies and sleek technology. Beautiful women and handsome men, standing between evil and good, and exciting adventures for all.

But he was just a spectator this time.

It hadn't lasted long enough.

It would probably be the last time.

Well, until Josh woke up to give him more news.


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