A Calculated Response: Prologue

Prologue:

18.5 minutes

 

“I’m a busy man,” came the voice from inside the room, “Come in and close the door behind you.”

A well-built man in a plainly cut suit carrying a briefcase and wearing a badge with his picture on it entered the large office. He had paused for a moment and looked around before entering, his gray eyes sweeping side to side taking in everything they could.  His escort had patiently paused with him expecting it, it was a reaction common to all first-time visitors to this place, it didn’t matter if you were a bureaucrat, a CEO, a rock star, or a state leader, it happened to everyone.

This room achieved its goal, intimidation.  The curving walls with three floor-to-ceiling windows framed a large desk with four flags set to its right.  Behind the desk sat the man he was here to meet who clearly he didn’t share the patience of his escort. Four doors led into the room next to each stood a man in a black suit and dark, impenetrable glasses; unmoving as statues, their very presence made it clear that nothing was going to happen in this room unless they let it happen. On the wall opposite the desk was a fireplace with a painting of a man in uniform above it. Two couches and several chairs made a comfortable meeting area by the fireplace giving a casual air to this most formal of offices.

He suppressed a small shiver when he realized the state of mind he was in, ‘I’m actually nervous’ he thought to himself, despite all he’d been through in his life, despite the time he spent to get here and the previous meetings with many other intimidating people he was nervous.  He took a deep breath and regained his composure, he needed calm and confidence now more than ever; he stepped into the office, his escort remaining outside and closing the door almost on his heels.  

Immediately another man in a black suit and dark sunglasses appeared at his right shoulder, he barely saw him come up next to him; he wasn’t even sure where he came from, ‘a variant perhaps’ he thought. Well he would find out soon enough and that might actually help make his case; this was going to be touch and go as it is and having a variant step up to guard against something I might do tells me he doesn’t trust anyone, not even someone coming with my recommendations. Not unexpected and it’s good to know now he supposed, but it made things more difficult. Turning toward the desk he took a deep breath and spoke, conscious of how he sounded and trying not to let his voice reveal his anxiety, “My name is Agent Brooks, sir.  Thank you for meeting with me under such unusual circumstances.”

A man with a large nose and sagging jowls sat behind a large mahogany pedestal desk.  Though impeccably dress in a well-tailored suit he somehow still looked rumpled.  He looked Agent Brooks over carefully before saying anything, his gaze lingered as if weighing him by sight alone.  “Several of my advisors have told me that I need to meet with you on a matter of the utmost importance and that it needs to be absolutely secret.  Now normally I wouldn’t accept requests like this but Don and Henry never agree on anything.  Both of them insisted I had to meet with you. I’m sure there’s a story behind that and maybe I’ll even care to hear it but for now say what you worked so hard to get here and say.”

Brooks smiled briefly, silently thankful for the favor granted from meeting with Henry, where he helped him find his missing glasses, which kept him on time for a critical meeting.  Still he was a bit surprised when after that Henry agreed to help him in return by arranging this meeting.  Pushing back the memory and wiping any trace of a smile from his face he answered back, “actually, it’s fairly complex,” he paused to choose his words carefully, “describing it as ‘of the utmost importance’ is in this case if anything an understatement; perhaps ‘the fate of the world’ would be a more appropriate term.”  The seriousness etched in his expression almost carried the statement, as ridiculous as it must sound.

A derisive snort escaped from the man, “I find that difficult to believe,” his words became clipped, revealing his annoyance.  “Everyone thinks their issue is the most important one there is.  When people start throwing around terms like ‘fate of the world’ well, it’s hard to take them seriously.  Outside of missiles flying there isn’t very much that the fate of the world rests on.  And frankly I doubt there is an issue I haven’t been briefed about which a minor agent in an unimportant division of the communication branch has detailed knowledge of.”  Brooks sighed inwardly, he knew this wasn’t going to be easy and maybe he overplayed it talking about ‘the fate of the world’ to start but the choice of words felt right.  The man behind the desk continued without pause, “So if that’s all,” he looked sharply at Brooks and then nodded his head toward the largest of the men in black suits, “I think we are done here.”

“Sir,” Brooks exclaimed before he could be escorted out, “I know this must sound like I’m a crazy man carrying a sign that says ‘repent, the end of the world is nigh’.  And I’m sure you also know that the people who told you that you needed to meet with me aren’t fools or easily swayed.”

With a nearly imperceptible shake of his head he stopped the nameless man in the black suit. “That’s true,” came agreement from the man behind the desk. “But, anyone can be misled, even me, and most definitely my advisors.”

“Sir, you need to hear what I have to say and see what I have to show you.  And as ready as you are to throw me out, I still have one more request.  Before I continue, I need you to have all of your guards step out of the room. I assure you I mean you no harm but what I have to show you is well above their pay grade.”

If the man behind the desk was surprised he hid it well.  “Martins, he’s been through the security checks?”

“Yes sir,” nodded the large man, Martins, at Brook’s shoulder; he finally was able to pin a name to him.  He tried to focus on what Martins was going to do if this turned bad but the dark glasses hid any glimpse of his eyes and prevented any attempt to read his intent.

“He has no weapons?  There’s nothing dangerous in the briefcase?”

“We didn’t open the case, it has a secure seal.  It went through screening and there were only a few files inside.”

A noise halfway between a hum and clearing his throat came from behind the desk as he weighed the options in his mind, “alright everyone out except you Martins.”  The man behind the desk turned to face Brooks as, other than Martins, the security detail cleared the room.  He leaned back and put his feet up on the desk resting them against the glass. “Martins stays, if I can hear it so can he. If this isn’t on the up and up…” the rest was left unsaid, the implication clear. “You’ve taken up five minutes of my time, for Don and Henry I’ll give you fifteen more to convince me I shouldn’t have you thrown out with the IRS paying you a visit that will make you wish not only that your parents had never met but that your grandparents had never met as well.”

He let the threats both stated and unstated wash over him.  Placing his briefcase on the desk, Agent Brooks opened the case to reveal several file folders.  Instead of reaching for the folders he grasped the right latch of the case and turned it clockwise and suddenly the contents shifted, the folders were gone and the base of the case was a glossy black sheet with squares engraved on it and the lid contained a reflective glass sheet.

“Sir,” Martins began in a monotone which almost made it seem that transforming briefcases were everyday occurrences in this office, “that briefcase went through X-ray and all that was in it were a few files, nothing like what’s in there now.”

“Yes it’s designed to look that way under X-ray.  To anyone who just opens it the actual contents are disguised with three dimensional projections,” Agent Brooks said answering the next question before it was even asked. “That’s part of the whole fate of the world issue I came here to discuss.”  The reflective glass sheet showed a slightly irritated man sitting behind the desk and clearly about to end the meeting until Agent Brooks reached over and turned the left latch on the briefcase.  Suddenly light came from around each square on the glossy black part of the briefcase and in the center of each was a letter laid out like a QWERTY keyboard.  Light came from the screen and after a few seconds the words, “Enter Password” appeared followed by a blinking square.  A few deft motions at the keyboard and the screen now changed its display.

“Good morning Agent Brooks….”

“New security reports are available.”

“17 new internal communications are pending.”

“National power grid is intact.”

“National communications grid is intact.”

“National and international news review reveals no new variant activity.”

“Internal sources state no new variant activity has been reported since last log in.”

“Please enter instructions:” followed again by the blinking square.

“What is that?” asked the gruff voice from behind the desk.  Almost everyone in the world would recognize with their eyes closed but few would have recognized uncertainty it now held.

“It’s called a portable computer Mr. President.  That briefcase represents more raw computational power than each and every piece of electronics the government owns put together, including the ones in Iron Mountain, Area 51, and Base 6.  It makes the rooms and rooms of tubes and tapes which helped send us to the moon look like a kindergartener doing his first math problems.”

“Impressive, but it hardly invokes ‘the fate of the world’.”

“The computer isn’t the issue; it’s just a sign of the problem, in a decade or two everyone will own something like this, in three or four decades they will be small enough to carry them in your pocket.  There’s more to see, and there are much more urgent issues.”  Brooks turned away and began to rapidly type again, Activate voder/vocoder: Process via voice match.

“Vox-mode active,” came a new tinny mechanical voice from the briefcase, “Good morning Agent Brooks, it’s nice to speak with you again.”

“A phone in a briefcase?” asked the President. “You know, we have those already.”

“No Mr. President, that’s the computer speaking to us, not someone on a phone.  Think of everything you’ve seen on TV shows looking at the future, or in the movies looking at other planets. Think about everything written by Verne and Wells, by Asimov and Heinlein, all the technology that sounds like magic but truly represents scientific advancement orders of magnitude beyond the present day. It’s all here now, or soon will be.”

The President had already regained his composure; he wouldn’t have made it to where he was today if he couldn’t recover quickly.  “That case is a nice toy and the voice thing a great party trick, but as to that last part. Well science fiction is still fiction as far as I can see.  No ray guns or spaceships, no warp drive or X-weapons.”

“No, not warp drive at least Mr. President,” Brooks carefully avoided the subject of X-weapons and thought about some of the other demonstrations Jesse had suggested to him.  “But some of those things…” Brooks reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small silver gun.

Martins instantly lunged forward placing himself between Brooks and the President.  His gun, this one an ordinary semi-automatic, was pointed straight at Brooks’ right eye, his body was angled such that Brooks couldn’t possibly get a clear shot at leader of the free world.

“It’s all right Mr. President,” Brooks said, obviously placing the gun down on the desk with over exaggerated movements, “it’s not active. Please ask Mr. Martins to lower his weapon and please don’t hit the alarm button your finger is no doubt hovering over, I’d hate to have to start again and waste time.”

“Stand down Martins,” came the quick reply from the President, “if he could sneak that through security and he wanted to use it he would have.” The President looked at the gun now lying on the glass top of the Wilson Desk; “your ray gun, I presume?”

“Yes Mr. President,” Brook answered, “or more precisely two guns, a neural disruptor and a physical disruptor.  The neural disruptor is a stun gun, it incapacitates in a wide arc by interrupting the electrical signals of the brain.  The physical disruptor isn’t so non-lethal.  It breaks the bonds between the atoms in matter.  Short range only right now but with it, well I could turn everything in this office, including the people, to dust.”

“Impressive,” noted the President. Brooks could sense the President about to reach for the disruptor gun, he could almost see the thoughts in his head and hear the words ‘North Vietnam’ echoing into the room before he had a chance to speak again.

“It is that, though it’s not perfected yet and only good for a few shots before it needs to be refitted, the cost is too high for military applications,” added Brooks before the President could go too far down that path.  

“How did you get it through security?”

“That’s a little complex, as I understand it; the gun isn’t actually there until I want it.” He saw the obvious annoyance on the President’s face, “I’m not trying to be obtuse Mr. President, I don’t have half of the intelligence it would take for me to understand, let alone explain, what all of these ‘items’ do.  I’ve been taught to use them and I know how to demonstrate them without making them explode.”

“Does that mean you plan to give a demonstration?”

“Yes sir, but not of the gun,” he moved the conversation away from that topic, “the gun is the least of what I came to show you.”  Brooks turned to the briefcase once again and said, “Computer, scan mode, detect and analyze variant humans.”

An antenna rose from the briefcase and a beam of light was transmitted from its end then slowly began to rotate around the room.  When it got to Martins it pulsed.  “Variant detected.  Increased skin density, increased muscle density, highly increased nerve conduction, high likelihood of hyperstrength, hyperdurability, and greatly enhanced speed and reaction time; no unusual characteristics noted, predicted threat level 4.”  The beam continued scanning the room, it had nearly gone full circle when it stopped again and began pulsing at the air next to the series of flags to the right of the desk. “Second variant detected, no cessation of visible light, heat source is noted but dulled, sound emissions cease propagation, high likelihood of invisibility, audio-null, unlikely intangible or undetectable, predicted threat level 2.”  The President maintained his gaze on Brooks, not even turning slightly toward the flags; a bodyguard then, not a spy, at least that’s good, thought Brooks.  

“Where did that thing come from?” asked the President.

“A variant made it sir.  A variant much like Mr. Martins here or your guard over by the flags,” again the President didn’t flinch when his unseen guard was mentioned. “This variant however doesn’t have super strength or invisibility, he has a mind that makes this computer look like the same kindergartener I compared it to before.  We call the power technical brilliance and it’s the ability to look at technology and simply understand it, improve it, make it do tricks.  That is a matter of global security.  Imagine the man who built these were from North Vietnam or the Soviet Union or Communist China,” Brooks said hoping he wasn’t making a mistake bringing up China.  “These tools are ours to use now and the inventor is fairly certain similar creations aren’t anywhere else in the world right now, but he’s equally sure they will be. His shortest estimates are on the order of one year from now, his longest are on the order of one century for now but he’s betting in the next two decades.  Of course how long we can keep this to ourselves depends greatly on the outcome of this meeting.”

“Yes, I can see the potential danger there.”  The President stopped talking for a minute, the quiet became palpable. “So why come here now, obviously you want more than to just show me these toys, as you called them, what do you want to me to do?  What is the outcome of this meeting you are hoping to achieve?”

Brooks didn’t answer right away; he turned and faced the briefcase, “Computer, initiate maximum security scan.”  The beam lanced once more out and circled the room again until it encompassed the desk itself. “Warning recording device detected, security is compromised.”

“I’m afraid that will need to be erased Mr. President.”

“And why is that?” President Nixon asked.

“Mr. President,” Brooks said hesitantly, “I’m not sure the full impact of what I’m showing you has hit you yet;” he had to tread lightly here, he can’t imply that this man is stupid or can’t see the big picture. “You obviously have variant humans in the Secret Service.  I know, from having seen the reports, that you had variants in Vietnam.  Not all of that damage was done by Agent Orange or napalm, unless you count the two variant soldiers who started using those names when they went crazy and lost control.”  The pictures of what those two did, thought Brooks, will haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.  Seeing those pictures put him on the path to meeting Jesse and learning what he had built in his garage, and meeting Jesse put him on the path to this very meeting.  

“Right now variants are scattered here and there in the armed forces and in various government agencies.  Most of the public is enamored of the whole idea of heroes and the Hero Certification Program.  When people think about variants, they envision people who can throw a car or fly through the air, they aren’t picturing people who can calculate Pi to the ten thousandth digit in their head or design a better skyscraper or create a storm which could wash out all the farms in America’s breadbasket.  The person who designed this portable computer and the disruption gun has many other inventions, none of which have been seen by the public.  He’s not the only one with the power to create out there, not by a longshot.  Go back a hundred years and Edison and Tesla were probably supers with this exact power, limited by the technology and manufacturing that surrounded them.  They changed the world and brought about new technologies and new manufacturing which their successors used.”

He gave the President some time to let that sink in and then, before he could recover, brought the speech home. “Less than 50 years ago, Einstein was almost certainly one of them, nuclear weapons and all they represent emerged from that batch of hyperintelligent supers.  What technologies will the next batch create? What social and political changes will they cause? What wars will start or stop because of their actions and their discoveries?”

“That’s why we have the HCP,” the President answered, finally finding his voice again in the onslaught of Brooks’ impassioned speech, “and Force Ops too I suppose.”

“People with this power aren’t out on the streets building giant robots to conquer the world, they aren’t taking down super villains and you might never see one in the HCP, I hope we will never see one in the HCP because they effectively have no limits and if we see one in the HCP that means that others are out there as villains.  These supers are in their basement labs developing technology that will change the world, some are probably at NASA or DARPA or the NIH, and I would lay odds that most of them work for or own companies bringing the technology to market.  These supers are no less common than strongman or fliers, or even invisible secret service agents,” he added glancing toward the flags.  “Someday soon we will need to deal with the fallout of these powers and other much more destructive or applied much more destructively than we have ever before seen.”

He was getting there now, his message was clearly received and for the first time Nixon looked shaken, a bead of sweat formed on his temple, now to bring it home.  “Right now Mr. President you need to turn off that recorder and erase what you taped, because right now we plan how to deal with people with super powers who aren’t in the HCP or your direct service. Right now we are going to discuss super powers, global security and how to keep America ahead of the power curve. We are going to plan how to keep America and its citizens safe and protected when the next petty dictator doesn’t have to have a missile because he has a soldier who is a missile, when he doesn’t need an army because he has a death ray, and when a single person has technology that can end all life on this planet.  Like I said Mr. President, I’m here to discuss the fate of the world.”

Nixon rallied again, shaken but not yet admitting that this was what he had to do, or maybe thinking ahead to what the ultimate ramifications would be, it wasn’t likely he could accomplish all he needed to and stay in office, too many radical shifts would need to be covered up. The President stood up and came around his desk, he looked Brooks right in the eye, “Why you?” he asked, “you aren’t a bureau chief, you aren’t a cabinet member, you don’t even have that high a security clearance.  Why are you the one bringing this to me? Why are you the one I should trust? And how did you put all of this together?”

“It had to be someone Mr. President; I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Nixon nodded slowly, he weighed the options and he made his decision, he reached into his desk drawer and flipped a switch.

“Recording device inactive,” reported the computer.

“Thank you Mr. President,” said Brooks.

“Alright Agent Brooks, there are still one or two minutes left in the time I had allotted to you.  Before I have to change my schedule which will raise all sorts of red flags to everyone in the West Wing, tell me what you think we need to do next.”

A Calculated Response: Chapter 1

Chapter 1:

Meredith Falls

 

Every generation experiences moments so powerful they’re etched on their souls.  Moments remembered with clarity so sharp that tears come to their eyes when they think about it even years later.  Your grandparents can describe every single detail about where they were and what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  No one can forget where they were when Kennedy or King was shot; everyone remembers the horror of the day the towers fell in New York.  It’s not always tragedy, the moon landing, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the Beatles coming to America, the first appearance of Captain Starlight… memories of history good and bad… but just when the last bad memory starts to fade, just when you can breathe again, that’s when the next tragedy is inscribed into the memory of man.  Everyone can recall second by second what was happening to them when the news broke about Meredith Falls, Illinois.  No one knew the name before tragedy struck, at the start of the day it was just another small town in the heart of America, population 12,342, no major industry, nowhere near anything of significance, never remembered by anyone.  Never to be forgotten again.

__________

Roughly one hundred and twenty emergency vehicles converged on Meredith Falls, Illinois.  Helicopters, mobile command centers, off road vehicles, ambulances, and several unique vehicles clearly indicating someone with super powers was involved with their operation or design.

In the lead copter the Architect signaled the pilot to stop and hover. The remainder of the vehicles halted with them, this was all planned at their operations center about ten miles north of the town.  It was hard to believe it had been twelve hours since the seismic activity was first detected and satellite scans of the area revealed clouds of dust where the town should be clearly seen.  He glanced down at a monitor showing a satellite feed from geosynchronous orbit; even now the images from above the town didn’t show a clear picture, too much dust, too many fires.  

“Pull up the maps,” the Architect said to a man in a Force Ops uniform standing across from him, the two were separated by a table bolted to the floor of the copter.  The uniformed man tapped a few commands into the screen embedded into the flat surface of the table and a map of the area appeared on it, the town indicated with a red circle.  Southeast part of the state, not near any strategic targets, the nearest city of any size was Evansville over the border in Indiana.  The town’s remote nature prevented rapid response from an organized group but first responders from several local police and fire departments and a group of five heroes, who were able to get here quickly, entered the town within two hours of the event.  His brow creased in worry, they hadn’t been heard from since.  

An organized response was needed and he was the one to lead it.  Unanimous agreement had placed him in charge of the overall search and rescue operation.  He wasn’t a hero. He had never even applied to any of the HCP programs around the country. He was a veteran of over 75 on site disaster relief efforts and the leader of HOPE for the last fifteen years, he was the most qualified to lead this rescue effort. None of his group were HCP graduates either but no one doubted they were heroes.  An international relief group made up entirely of supers, they came on the scene at the start of the millennium, just in time to try and help in New York, for all the good they were able to do there.

Despite being of no use that tragic September morning, they certainly did a lot of good before and after.  The group’s active membership had swelled to over five hundred members stationed across the globe.  He managed to bring over a hundred of them with him today, all of which had powers suited to dealing with large scale disasters and disruptions. Alongside his people, he had forty-five heroes from the region who were traveling in their own transports or under their own power.  Add to those two twenty man battalions from Force Ops, more than twenty teams of PEERS, each with a supervising hero.  He recognized most of them as being from Chicago, but Arch was a group from St. Louis and the Big Three were from Detroit, though at this point he thought there were seven of them.  He saw two other groups he recognized as being from Los Angeles, even if he couldn’t remember their names.  The final PEERS group was Memoriam from New York who hadn’t missed a major event since they were formed in the wake of 9/11.  This was the first time any of them were going into such an unknown since then.  The last times he had so many of HOPE on US soil were for the big natural disasters, Katrina and more recently Sandy.   

Rounding out the group and huddling together in one of the large transport trucks were the volunteers, thirty-seven supers who generally lived normal lives within a few hundred miles of Meredith Falls; they came out to help because the need was there.  

“You know, I think there are more of us than the entire population of this town,” joked someone over the radio in a vain attempt to break the tension. It didn’t work; silence was the only response.

“Alright everyone,” the Architect said over the radio.  “This is likely the largest gathering of active supers since the tragedy of 9/11.  Let’s remember why we are here and just hope we can do more good here than they could there.”

It’s late in the day almost sundown,’ he thought, ‘no one will be happy to enter a complete unknown, potentially hostile situation losing the light.’  Yet, he was sure they couldn’t wait for morning either, the population of this town was over ten thousand, just a small town in the middle of nowhere but clearly the target of something that should have passed them by.  ‘If we’re to have any hope of saving lives we need to go in now, we can’t wait till morning, people are depending on us.  This is what we do.

The Architect placed two hands on the screen and pulled them apart, enlarging the map and focusing on the area they now hovered over.  ‘Yes’, he thought to himself, ‘this area is the best for access and there are flat and defendable places to set up a forward base.’ He looked up from the map and spoke to the man in uniform, “We’ll land here, tell the pilot.”  

The helicopters landed letting out the members of the search and rescue group.  No sooner where they empty then they were taking off again and hovering to direct scanning equipment toward the burning town that was Meredith Falls.  The group stood facing the town beneath the haze of smoke and dust less than a quarter mile away.  The buildings here were obviously damaged but mostly intact, flames danced in and among them.  Despite the fading sunlight, the town was fairly visible due to the backlight from the areas that were burning.  No one saw any movement.

The Architect raised his arm and signaled to a preselected group who advanced cautiously.  This group of seven supers had five pyrokinetics including Douse, one of his own members of HOPE who could quench a five-alarm fire on his own. Also with the pyrokinetics was Coordinate, a hero from Detroit, whose power was to bring other supers into alignment to work together. The final member of the seven was Remote, one of the PEERS who could allow anyone else’s power to work at a distance equal to his line of sight.  ‘If this was going to work,’ he thought to himself, ‘we are going to have to depend on the metapowers, we aren’t going to be able to do this as individuals.’  It was an interesting contradiction, some of the greatest feats supers were recognized for depended on metas, those supers whose only power was to influence other supers’ powers. Unfortunately for them, they almost never received the glory or the adulation of the highly visible heroes they empowered.  Everyone talks about when Omni stopped the Ferris wheel at the Chicago Pier from falling over but no one mentions his teammate RampUp who strengthened his power to the point he actually could.  They are easy to overlook and, like healers, it’s almost impossible for them to actually graduate from an HCP. The PEERS groups recognize their talent and snap them up as soon as they can find them.  ‘I wish we had more in HOPE,’ he thought, not for the first time.

His attention was drawn back to the lead group. They were starting the first phase of the rescue effort.  Fire began to rise up and swirl around them, the five pyrokinetics in a pentagon surrounding Coordinate and Remote who stood in fireproof suits complete with their own breathing gear; this next part was going to be rough on the two of them.  The flames began to spin forming a vortex around the group and suddenly, as if the fire surrounding them called to its own kind, the inferno consuming what was left of the town tore away and leapt at them like a jungle cat attacking its prey.  The seven of them were suddenly engulfed in a fifty foot high wave of fire. Despite knowing it would happen, it still felt like an attack.  It was no attack however; it was the start of the mission.  The fire continued to swirl around them, faster and faster, absorbing the wave of destruction from the town, until suddenly it shot upward like a column into the sky.  Despite being warned to expect this, the choppers all began to weave and bob; the air suddenly turning turbulent in the wake of the fiery vortex. The fountain of fire shone above the town like the sun itself and for the first time Meredith Falls was fully illuminated. Everyone was left with spots floating in front of their eyes but the extent of the damage could finally be seen.  It was the first time anyone outside of Meredith Falls during the attack had seen the crater.  Meredith Falls wasn’t large, the town proper only being one, maybe two miles across. The view was still obscured by all the dust and smoke in the air, but fully half the town was engulfed by a jagged tear rent into the earth and no one could tell how wide or how deep it was.

As soon as the fires were extinguished the next team moved into position.  Willowbark, one of the most powerful healers next to Harrow himself, and Weary, another member of HOPE who could invigorate people and wash away fatigue, ran to Coordinate and Remote, their part in this wasn’t finished and they needed to be at their best.  Three more supers surrounded the two metas as the healers and pyrokinetics pulled back.  These were the climatokinetics who could change weather the way the pyrokinetics could control fire. Precipitate from HOPE, and Squall and Forecast, a hero and PEERS respectively.  All three were powerful weather manipulators and, with the help of the metas, they brought rain from a clear sky over the entire town to wash the dust out of the air and winds from behind the waiting rescue force to blow the smoke away from the town.  As they finished, three hundred twenty seven supers and over a thousand ordinary rescue personnel were given the first clear view of Meredith Falls with the setting sun illuminating it from behind.  Not one building stood undamaged.  This was a town, not a city, none of the buildings started higher than five stories and there were only a dozen or so that were three stories or higher.  Still the vision of what was left of Meredith Falls would haunt those who stood silently for a moment until the Architect started issuing orders.

No one knew what had happened here, what had caused the devastation that lay before them.  If it was a natural disaster there were no indications to support that and it there didn’t seem to be anything ‘natural’ about it.  That left an act of man or, as the Architect was more worried over, superman.  

That worry was why he called his entire team together outside the ruined town instead of immediately heading in to look for survivors.  Everyone here knew the laws, knew the rules, and was here to help. No one here was looking for face time on CNN or ten million hits on YouTube.  The law was clear when it came to supers, anyone was able to lend aid and assistance in the face of an emergency as long as it didn’t involve combat, especially with other supers.  Until it was clear that there was no threat from supers or powered, the first responders going into the town were going to be one hundred percent certified heroes. When he had been chosen to organize the relief effort he chose Tantamount, a well-known hero from Chicago, to take the lead should any super villains be present.

“Tantamount, first incursion into the town is for you and your heroes.  Force Ops, form a perimeter around the town, the third transport has interdiction walls for you.  Those of you designated to set up the command base begin work here.  PEERS teams, HOPE, and everyone else stay ready and let’s pray we can do some good.”

“Alright everyone,” Tantamount begun as the forty-five heroes designated to be first inside Meredith Falls gathered around him, the supervising heroes from the PEERS groups weren’t with them but were ready to head into the town if needed for recovery and extraction.  “We don’t know who or what’s in there.  We don’t know how this was done, if there are any survivors, or how much help they might need.  What we do know is over one hundred men and women from local fire houses and rescue groups went in there ten hours ago and haven’t come out.  We also know that Tramp, Faraday, Hard Drive, Maximum, and Boom Box all went in together and none of them have come out either.  All of them except Boom Box were seasoned, experienced heroes with extensive track records of dealing with dangerous situations.  And Boom Box, well while is still technically an intern; he graduated second in his class, was a Manhattan class power and had finished a stellar year of internship.  We don’t know what we are going to face but, then again, when do we?  We do know our jobs, so break into your teams and head out.  Stay in constant contact.”

__________

Static hissed over the radio for a second and then the voice of Beta from Bedrock, a team of heroes based in New York City, came through rough and distorted.  “We’ve found Boom Box and Tramp, or what’s left of them.  They’re impaled on a number of metal supports that tore free of one of the buildings.” A big hiss of static burst over the airways before partially clearing again, “This wasn’t an accident; they’re laid out like they were being pierced through one limb at a time.  I think they were alive when it happened.” The horror of Beta’s statement was just sinking in when his earpiece was filled with a burst of static so loud he had to grab the radio and rip it from his ear.  Tantamount felt the hair on his arms start to rise and caught the sharp scent of ozone in the air.  Throwing himself to the side, he came down in a roll to see the semi-human form of Faraday lance into the spot where he had been standing.  The other four members of his team weren’t so lucky, they were all near him and they were all knocked out by Faraday’s landing, as if struck by a taser they all shook and then fell down.  ‘It was a mistake’, he thought, to not take any durable heroes in his team.  Faraday was one of the rare elemental manipulators who could turn himself into his element and his element was electricity.  They had worked together before and he always looked a bit like a caricature of a person made up of arcs of electricity but now he looked different, distorted further from the human form.  His arms appeared too long and bending at odd angles, his legs too short and thick, his head was almost lopsided.  Something even stranger than they expected was going on here.

Faraday spun to face Tantamount. He had spent the time from his arrival to the entry into the town studying what little information they had about the situation. That included the dossiers on the five heroes who disappeared inside the wreckage.  He was hoping to find some clue as to what might have happened here.  So, while they had never worked together, he knew his file well enough to know that when he attacked he surged at his target, striking like a lightning bolt.  There was a moment after he struck when he would be vulnerable, still in electrical form but reorienting from the rapid movement.  Tantamount reached out toward Faraday with his power and waited for him to strike.  It came suddenly and, if Tantamount weren’t ready, he would have been charred to a crisp with only an electrical pop and the smell of ozone to mark his death.  Just as Faraday began to surge toward Tantamount, he froze in place. Tantamount looked at him as he apparently stepped out of time; he never knew exactly what his power, strong enough to graduate him first in his class, would do but it always served him well.  He stepped to the side, just a few feet from where he had stood, he could sense the particles in the air ionizing, a pathway forming between Faraday and the ground where he previously stood.  He reached for the unmoving Faraday, knowing instinctively, that this was the right thing to do.  He made contact and sensed the conduction of electricity through his own body; his nervous system had become a network of superconducting fibers.  Just as quickly as he stepped out of time he rejoined its flow.  Faraday now stood on the spot Tantamount had occupied seconds before.  He was hunched forward in his distorted form. He had his hand gripped around the nape of Faraday’s neck, feeling the energy of his form pulse beneath his touch. He held him tight, allowing him no time to recover. With his other hand he reached out to grab a fragment of rebar sticking out of the remains of a wall. He closed the circuit and grounded Faraday.

The arcs of electricity drained away from Faraday through Tantamount and into the rubble the rebar stuck out from.  Tantamount sighed in relief, sometimes his power made fights go as fast and smooth as this one did, other times it was like a tug-of-war between two absolutely matched teams, it kept going till one made a mistake or just succumbed to fatigue.  Slowly the depowered form of Faraday became visible, the electricity flowing down his body revealing the organic form beneath that looked as if it was emerging from water.  Tantamount swallowed, suppressing the urge to vomit; he expected to see the black costume with a fractal pattern of lightning bolts on it that Faraday wore.  The costume was there, torn and stretched over a body that was barely recognizable as human.  The reason for the distortion of his electrical form became obvious; the body beneath it was no longer fully human.  His neck was twisted at an odd angle. Tantamount had witnessed enough people with broken necks to recognize one but Faraday certainly wasn’t paralyzed.  The skin on his face hung down in folds looking like someone had filled his head like a balloon and let the air out.  His arms were stretched long and thin and they seemed like they were fractured in several places but the way he was flailing them was more like there were extra joints in them.  His stomach pouched out like the muscle holding in his guts was gone and parts of him writhed under the skin and his legs were more like gnarled stumps, the arms may have had extra joints but the legs didn’t appear to have any.  As the last of the electricity drained away from the no longer human form he screamed a skull piercing scream that reflected tremendous pain; it went on for what seemed like hours though it was probably only thirty seconds before he ran out of breath and fell to the ground shaking in what was clearly a seizure.  

Tantamount had all the basic first aid and combat medic courses but there was nothing he could do by the time he bent down to check a pulse. Faraday was completely still and obviously dead.  He was heading to retrieve his earpiece and call for recovery when suddenly the earpiece he had thrown aside than two minutes before began chirp as the locator alarm sounded.  Placing it back in his ear, he heard a worried call, “Tantamount, are you there?” Beta’s voice asked in his ear. Now that the battle was over he looked around for additional enemies, not forgetting to look up, a hard lesson learned while he was still in the HCP. He saw Mercy, a flier who had been with Beta, wing her way to him.

“I’m here Beta. I found Faraday… or something that was Faraday.”

“Was?”

“He’s completely distorted, his body isn’t human anymore.  He’s dead now, he didn’t survive his power being drained off and I think that might actually be for the best.  I’m not sure but I think his electrical form was keeping him alive, when I shut it down his body no longer able to live.” Despite being a veteran of hundreds of battles with other supers, he had never had to take a life. He stopped for a moment, the implications of that washing over him when a thought struck him. “Beta, the bodies you found, are there burns on them?”

“No they are broken, not burned.”

“Broken, are their bodies distorted or twisted?”

“No, not distorted just broken, like most of their bones were shattered.”

“Beta, get out of there I think…” but the warning came too late.  Even half the town away Tantamount could feel the shaking from the impact in the direction he had sent Beta and his team.  Maximum, it has to be Maximum. “Mercy, get me there now.” She grabbed him beneath his arms and lifted him up.  He could have used his power on her but no guarantee it would have let him move faster, just as likely he would have become rooted to the spot.  As they approached the area he could see Beta and Warfang facing off against Maximum.  Maximum was a strongman with no known upper limit, every time you thought he was going to top out he got stronger. “Drop me off,” he yelled to Mercy, “and then turn around and see if you can get my team up and heading over here.  We are probably going to need all the help we can get.”

Tantamount was dropped next to Warfang, he glanced around and saw the other two members of their team down on the ground.  He hoped they weren’t dead, ‘I can’t even remember their names,’ he thought, ‘let’s hope I won’t need to read them off in a memorial service.’ He let his gaze stray upward for a second, trying to avoid taking his eyes off Maximum, and saw Mercy heading back the direction they came from. The power he had gained from fighting Faraday was still with him but he doubted it would be a lot of help with Maximum. He reached out toward Maximum with his power.  Knowing just how powerful Maximum was, he debated reaching out toward his teammates as well and gaining some extra power but he had his limits. He still didn’t really understand what was happening here and wanted to have options should Hard Drive appear as well.  He expected that he would swell up, gain strength, gain durability.  His body didn’t change, he didn’t sense any new physical powers, instead he found new sensations.  He looked at Maximum and saw him enraged, about to attack. He sensed in him something disturbing his mind, pushing him onward, encouraging him to fight while, at the same time, bringing out a sense of worthlessness, self-loathing, and punishment. It was a blur in his mind, not telepathy, not empathy, just… awareness.  There was more to it than just the sensation. He could feel the edges of whatever it was causing the disturbance, he could feel something undefined there, almost shape it out, like a blind man knowing what someone looks like by feeling their face.  It was a man, or man-like, he was sure of that. He felt it standing above Maximum but not the hero Maximum, more of… he paused unsure, he didn’t understand it.  

It was like this sometimes, his power wasn’t straight forward; sometimes he had to adapt.  Maximum charged and Tantamount invoked the power he received fighting Faraday, again stepping out of time so he could sidestep the charge.  His mind worked at enhanced speeds amplified by the superconducting nerves he had also gained fighting Faraday.  The moment of frozen time gave him ample time to consider what he was sensing though no time would be passing for his teammates and their opponent.  He had to work this out quickly given he probably had less than five minutes left of this power. If he faced Maximum without it, he would be just as dead as the heroes impaled on the metal poles.  He could still sense the… entity, for lack of a better word, within Maximum.  It was stern somehow, punishing, overbearing, strict. There was more, it felt almost divided like there were two aspects there.  He sensed Maximum too, but it wasn’t the proud hero he knew. He was hesitant and scared; no not scared, he was terrified. The other was standing over him somehow as if punishing him… no, that wasn’t quite right either.  He could change this but he needed to understand it better.  It was something to do with Maximum, something… he made up his mind he stepped around a pile of rubble and out of line of sight from the fight before coming back to real time.  He reached up to his earpiece and tapped a button on its side.  He had to do this fast, he knew to his teammates he just disappeared and he didn’t want to distract them with that.  They needed everything they had just to survive against someone like Maximum with no control.

“Dispatch, this is Tantamount.”

“Dispatch here, what do you require Tantamount.”

“Access to secure records, psych profile, application to HCP, and deep background on Maximum.  This is Priority Alpha.”  He had made similar requests in the past but never for a hero, only so he could learn about villains and possible weaknesses.

There was an unusual pause on the other end of the line; apparently this wasn’t something Dispatch was used to either. “Accessing. There is quite a lot here, what did you need to know?”

“Psych background, anything unusual?  Stressors, problems, something in his past?  I can’t tell you exactly, there’s something there that’s being exploited.  I need to know what, to fix it.”

“He comes from a broken home.  There was concern after he first manifested that he was actually a powered. Apparently he beat his father to a pulp, nearly killed him.  Neighbors had called in a domestic disturbance, they said they heard crashing and that a china cabinet had ‘flown through the bay window and landed in the middle of the street.  When the police arrived they found Maximum huddled in a corner next to the broken body of his father who was luckily enough still breathing.  The police didn’t know what was happening but they had the good sense not to point their guns at Maximum, they treated him as a victim and tried to comfort him.  He was clearly distraught and guilty over what he had done but he wasn’t simply lashing out at anyone around him.  In the investigation it came out that his mother died in childbirth and apparently his father blamed him.  His father was abusive, used to lock him in a closet and deprive him of food.  He beat him too; Maximum had many partially healed bruises and fractures when he was found.  He was placed with his mother’s sister who raised him. He needed years of counseling and even during HCP he had special psychiatric evaluation to be sure none of this surfaced. It never emerged, he never lost control, every psych evaluation, every after action report has indicated that he is adjusted and that was fully put behind him.”

“Well that would explain it, something has brought it out now and Maximum is completely out of control.  Thanks for the information Dispatch.”

“You’re welcome Tantamount, this is of course to be kept under highest confidentiality.  Now I would suggest you get back to the fight, Beta’s biometric indicators are fluctuating.”

Tantamount turned and, one last time, invoked the time stop.  He stepped out from behind the rubble and reentered the fight.  Beta was down on the ground with Maximum’s fist heading straight at his face.  Beta was tough but this would put him down.  He needed to do something.  His mind sought out Maximum with the new power and he again saw the frightened version of himself, childlike he now realized.  Somehow all the stressors and memories of his childhood had been brought to the surface.  The other entity he sensed, stern, unforgiving, punishing; somehow invoking the father who tortured him to the point that when his powers developed he struck back and nearly killed him.  He reached out to the other entity and he imposed a change, he didn’t know how he did it only that he could.  The entity collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, he imagined it broken and bleeding on the ground, still alive, though he didn’t really want to include that piece of the description he felt it was necessary.  

The effect was almost instantaneous. Maximum stumbled and collapsed, the devastating punch heading toward Beta’s head never reaching its target.  Maximum curled into fetal position and began to sob.  “No, I didn’t want to hurt you.  Why did you make me hurt you?  Why couldn’t you love me?  No…” he trailed off.

Tantamount approached him calmly, hands out as non-threatening as he could be, remembering what Dispatch said about the police officers who found him. It was easy for heroes to dismiss the contribution of the police or the firemen, he knew better. Thinking about what those officers did for a young boy who they knew could kill them like swatting a fly, he found even more respect than he already had for the police.  He was acutely aware of the fact that he had no enhanced durability right now and that Maximum could crush him with his little finger.  “Son,” he began, “I’m here to help you, this isn’t your fault. I’m going to take you someplace safe.  Your aunt is waiting for you, she’s going to take care of you.”

Slowly the sobs faded but didn’t stop.  “My aunt? I don’t need to stay with dad?”  The voice was different, it was deep still but it invoked the image of a small child somehow with its tone.

“No Son, you don’t need to ever see him again.”  Tantamount noticed Beta and Warfang approaching.  Mercy was heading back as well though none of Tantamount’s original group was with her.  He turned to Beta and said, “why don’t you get a healer in here,” gesturing toward Beta’s two fallen teammates. “I have a feeling my team will need them too, let me see what I can accomplish with Maximum.”  Beta nodded and turned to his fallen companions, Tantamount saw him tap his earpiece and just heard him say ‘Dispatch, this is Beta,” before he walked out of hearing range.

He turned back toward Maximum with Warfang at his back, Mercy he noticed landed with Beta.  “Son, we need to bring your friend Hard Drive with us as well, do you know where he is?”

Maximum looked up tears still streaming down his eyes. “I… I do… but he’s… I’m sorry I didn’t want to… he made me… I…”  The words broke down into babble.

“It’s alright son, just take us to him, no one here is blaming you for anything.  We want to help you and we want to help Hard Drive. Maximum looked up, slowly nodding though the tears never stopped.  He got to his feet and led Tantamount and Beta to a collapsed building with what was left of a stairway leading down into darkness.  The absolute blackness of the basement made Tantamount realize there was still some daylight remaining, the seeming hours they had already been through was probably only minutes.  ‘How long will it seem before we are done,’ he wondered idly.

“Are you sure about this?” Warfang asked.  “I mean down there in the dark, he could crush us to a pulp and we couldn’t even run.”

“I know you better than that Warfang,” replied Tantamount, “you never run, even when you should,” he chuckled.

“Well that’s true enough but I always want the option,” he jibed back.

Tantamount and Warfang both turned on their wrist mounted lights.  Beta glanced down and realized his wasn’t working, the LEDs being smashed in the fight with Maximum.  “Mine will be enough. Let’s follow.” Maximum had already gone down into the basement, they could hear echoes of him moving around down there and Tantamount wondered briefly if Maximum’s power somehow let him see in the dark.

The little bit of light outside from the setting sun was completely gone by the time they were halfway down the stairs.  The darkness was absolute and they could only see by the beam radiating from Tantamount’s arm.  It was focused on the stairs below them so they didn’t trip over rubble.  The stairs let them out into what seemed to be some sort of store room.  There were shelves breaking up the area and occluding their view.  Tantamount swept the light from side to side but didn’t immediately see Maximum. They could only hear his muffled sobs off to the left.  They made their way around the shelves; everything that was on them was on the floor blocking their way.  It was easy to see which way Maximum went since there was a rough path where he shoved away anything which was in his way.  As they turned a corner, the sobs grew louder.  The beam shone out and illuminated Maximum huddled in the corner, hunched over and moaning in anguish.

“I didn’t want to hurt him,” he cried out.  “I only wanted it to stop.  I… I’m sorry… I needed help… I didn’t want to hurt anyone… I just wanted him to stop…” it kept on like that flowing from Maximum in a continuous stream of sorrow.  In his arms was the broken form of Hard Drive, held like a child would hold a teddy bear for comfort. Maximum slowly rocked over the body of the hero.

Tantamount could sense the same horror and shame he was feeling from Warfang next to him in the dark.  ‘Last vestiges of the last power,’ he supposed. He reached up to his earpiece and keeping his voice even by a sheer act of will he requested in a monotone, “Dispatch, this is Tantamount, we need an extraction.”

__________

A mile or more away, on the other side of the crater from Tantamount and Beta’s groups, were those led by Coordinate and Fracture.  Jet Black was assigned to Coordinate’s group. She was adjusting to the new sensations granted to her from being merged into a group by the meta’s powers. It was disorienting, she was ‘aware’ of everyone else in the group of six.  It wasn’t a telepathic connection she couldn’t sense their thoughts but she knew where they were how they were doing and how to ‘align’, for lack of a better word, their powers.  Hopefully the advantages gained would offset the distraction of feeling like someone she couldn’t quite catch out of the corner of her eye was watching her.

She had gone ahead; her speed made her the best to scout. The frictionless field that surrounded her, giving her the name she was known by in the world of super heroes, made her nearly indestructible.  The link made it even less likely she would run into trouble she couldn’t handle. She was looping wide around a pile of rubble that looked like it had started the day as a car dealership when she realized that though she was less likely to run into trouble, it didn’t mean it was impossible.

She moved swiftly from ruined car to ruined car, anxiously checking for survivors though she was starting to lose hope.  She hadn’t found a single survivor yet. More disturbingly, she hadn’t found a single body either.  She headed for a large SUV nearly upended and half buried in the one wall of the dealership still left standing. Something ‘feral’ suddenly emerged from within it.  She had less than a second to stop and turn to the side before she would have hit it.  At first she thought it was a large dog but it was too large and there were tentacles, she was sure there were tentacles coming out from around its head.  She turned to look at it over her shoulder but her eyes sort of slid off it, her mind refusing to admit such a thing could exist.  Turning, she headed toward the edge of the lot where she saw a bent piece of pipe sticking out of some rubble, probably part of the fence that used to surround the lot. She could grab that, it would suffice to defend herself with. Despite her speed, before she could reach the makeshift weapon, another creature leapt in front of her, this one seemed more catlike but again her eyes couldn’t focus on it.  She turned another time only to find a third even larger creature directly in front of her.  Her mind tried to tell her it was a giant lizard but her eyes just slid off it, refusing to focus once more.

By this time her teammates, feeling the stress through Coordinate’s bond, were beginning to arrive.  Salvo came first and the ground under the lizard erupted in sprays of rock and fire.  Salvo was one of the pyrokinetics who helped extinguish the burning town when they first arrived, he was also a terrakinetic able to manipulate rock and stone, the combination of the two was powerful and the lizard-thing winked out of existence like a soap bubble being pricked by a needle.  

‘Are you alright?’ The voice came directly into her head. Braindrain, the telepath and telekinetic assigned to their team had arrived.  Her range was limited she knew which is why the group wasn’t in constant contact. She apparently had many unique aspects of her powers which Jet Black could sense through Coordinate’s link, if not quite understand.

‘I’m ok,’ she thought back at Braindrain, ‘but something very strange is happening here.’ As she replied her vision started to swim as more and more of the things she knew were there but couldn’t focus on started appearing surrounding her. ‘I don’t know what these things are or what to do about them, Salvo got rid of one but they are coming faster and faster.’

‘What started it,’ she asked as she arrived at the scene levitating herself along swiftly. While not a flier, she was one of the few telekinetics who could actually move themselves through the air. Most can’t do that. Her friend Crane once told her it was like trying to grab your self by the scruff of the neck and carry your own body at arm’s length, it just couldn’t be done.  Unless you were Braindrain apparently.

‘I don’t know, I was heading to check out that SUV,’ picturing it in her mind as she said it, ‘that’s when the first of those things arrived.’

Braindrain glanced over at the SUV while lifting and tossing a huge fragment of concrete with one of the things on it. ‘There’s a person in there, his thoughts are racing, disjointed, frightened.  I think somehow he’s responsible for those things.’

‘Is he the one who caused all this damage?’

‘I don’t think so but I can’t read him deeply this way, I’ll need to touch him to really get a good idea of what happened here.’ She paused for a moment then looked to the north before her mind voice spoke again somehow seeming louder as if trying to speak with someone further away. ‘Pax we need you here.’

A male voice replied, apparently echoed by Braindrain. ‘On my way, Staccato is bringing me there.’ As soon as the voice stopped, the silence was broken by a sudden series of loud popping sounds. She saw two figures appearing and disappearing rapidly moving closer by about half a football field each time, she felt them approaching through Coordinate’s bond as well, assuring her that they were indeed her teammates.  With the last pop, the two of them appeared next to Jet Black and Braindrain.  She hadn’t met Staccato or Pax before, the link told her Staccato was some kind of teleporter and Pax, all the link told her about him was he has something to do with other people’s powers.  

‘And my husband,’ came Braindrain’s mental voice to her almost a whisper.  She looked up at the levitating hero who turned to her and winked.  Braindrain continued in her conversational mind voice, ‘someone is in that SUV and causing these creatures or things to appear.’  The area they were in now seemed to be clear of them and Salvo was exploding the ground under any that made their way toward them, but the SUV was now surrounded by at least twenty of the things.  They almost couldn’t see the SUV itself when they looked toward it, the creatures encircling it repelled all attempts to focus on them, blurring out the wreck they surrounded.

“I can’t get close enough to do anything with those things there,” Pax spoke out loud, it seemed odd to actually hear the voice with her ears.

“I should be able to take care of that,” added Staccato.

“Can you teleport them away?” asked Jet Black.

“No but just watch.  Be ready Pax, I’ll come and get you soon as this is done; we are close enough that I can do it in one jump.”

Staccato disappeared from her view and then reappeared, obscured as if behind a heat shimmer from the milling creatures near the SUV.  This time when he appeared there wasn’t the popping sound she had come to associate with his teleporting, this time there was a booming noise so loud she had to look to make sure Salvo hadn’t exploded anything.  There was a sudden shock wave near the SUV and then the view of the area was clear again.  None of the creatures remained nearby. There was a pop again and Staccato was with them grabbing Pax and then another pop and they were gone reappearing next to the SUV. The creatures were scrambling toward the SUV, distorted images moving like a heat wave over the desert. Then suddenly they were completely gone.

‘It’s OK we can head over now,’ came Braindrain’s mind voice again, ‘Pax has neutralized him.  Coordinate is coming over as well we’ll keep the whole group together for the next part.’

Jet Black raced over to the SUV and Braindrain levitated through the air coming to rest next to Pax. “He’s a projector,” Pax said, “images and solid forms, sounds and sensations too I think.”  He shook his head, “it’s a raw untrained power, new to him, I think it might have just emerged.”

“Does that mean he did all this?” Jet Black asked, “and how do you know that?”

“No I don’t think he did this, he’s powerful but not on this scale. As for how I know that,” suddenly there were animals all around them, this time the eye didn’t refuse to focus on them, dogs and cats and lizards, as well as numerous others, he smiled and then they changed, the eye wouldn’t focus on them anymore, they still didn’t have the disturbing quality the previous projections did.  “I know because it’s my power right now, I took it from him.  It’s what I do. I’m no Zero but I’m pretty good at taking out a dangerous super or two.”

“So you’re a mimic? How did that stop him?”

“I’m not a mimic,” Pax said exasperated, it was obviously a sore point with him. “I’m a power thief,” he added and then let all the images fade away.

Coordinate walked up to the group stepping carefully over the loose rubble and bits of car that littered the area. “I haven’t seen a single person,” she said, “who did you find?”

‘Don’t know yet,’ came the mental reply, ‘we were just about to find out.’ Braindrain focused on the SUV and suddenly there was a metallic tearing noise and it split in two.  Hovering where the vehicle had been was a young man in torn jeans and a formerly white t-shirt; he looked to be about eighteen. ‘Michael Ross, he was here to buy his first car, definitely not responsible for any of this.  Lucky in a way, his emerged power protected him from whatever it was that happened; though I’m not sure he will see it that way.’  

“He’s old for a power to emerge, almost every super I’m aware of emerged by shortly after puberty.  Every powered too as far as I know.”

‘There are a number of cases where a latent power emerged in response to a stressful, generally life threatening situation. Most cases where a super gains new powers occur that way too.’

“Interesting I suppose,” replied Coordinate. Jet Black was still getting used to conversations that were half speech and half telepathy. “However, in the end, it’s not very important, just this second anyway. Does he know what happened here?”

‘His thoughts are a jumble.  If we want to find out what he knows I’m going to need to do a deep probe.’

“Do it,” was Coordinate’s immediate reply.  “I think this more than qualifies as an emergency deep probe without consent. Can you relay it directly to my mind at the same time?”

‘I can, but you will be the only one to see it, I won’t be able to see it myself and it will be hard to direct the probe.  It would all come at you like a data dump, your mind will need to process it to make sense of it, usually takes a couple of hours.’

“I have an idea Coordinate,” said Pax, “I have his power now and he’s a projector. Braindrain can direct the probe, you can sync our powers, she can send me the images and I can project them for all of us to see.  That way we all see it in real time and can all contribute to figuring out what happened here.”

“Good idea Pax,” Coordinate turned toward Braindrain, “let’s do it.”

They lay the semi-conscious young man on the ground as best as they could.  Braindrain knelt at his head, ‘I’ll probably be a bit too distracted with this to keep him floating, he might have an ache or two from rocks in his back but that’s better than if I dropped him, or even worse flung him, while trying to pull out his memories.’

“I’ll let the others know to keep watch while we are busy,” said Coordinate.  She and Pax stepped to the side, her hand going up to tap her earpiece.

“Are you sure you can do this?” asked Jet Black to Braindrain, “aren’t memories supposed to be hard to get at?”

‘No worries, it’s my specialty; it’s why I took the name Braindrain.  Professor Stone always told me she rarely saw anyone with such ability to pull memories out.’

‘The legendary Professor Stone’ thought Jet Black, trying not to project it to Braindrain, ‘that means she’s a Lander graduate.’

‘Yes, me and Pax both, sorry it’s hard to stop reading someone in the middle of a mental conversation.  We graduated six years ago, Pax was number two from our class and I was number four.  Everyone warned us about trying to hold on to a relationship through HCP, the dangers of not advancing, having our memories scrambled. We didn’t worry; we kept right on with it through all of training and got married as part of the White Cape Ceremony.  Zero even gave me away.’ An image flashed to Jet Black, Braindrain in a white dress with a white cape, she looked happy.

“All right,” said Coordinate reentering the area, “Fracture’s team is on the lookout, Dispatch said something is happening with Tantamount and Beta’s teams so we need to get this done and get moving.  This boy is the only survivor of the town anyone found so far, though apparently at least one of the first group of heroes to get here is alive if not well. Let’s get moving.”

Braindrain reached down and touched the boy’s head on each temple, ‘his name is Michael’ she reminded herself.  Pax came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, it was an almost affectionate gesture.  Coordinate simply stood nearby, the basic link was already established and she didn’t have to touch them to use her power, she just needed to be in the area.

‘I’m in,’ Braindrain’s mental voice was on projection again, ‘it’s confusing in here, lots of blurry, rapid fire memories.  I’m going to go backwards to when he was trying to buy the car.  That should be before anything happened.

Pax looked up suddenly, “OK, I’m getting images now, let’s see what happened here.” His eyes began to glow and suddenly they were standing outside of an intact car dealership.  The SUV which lay in two halves ten feet from them was whole and new.  Michael was talking to a salesman. “I think I can do sound too,” came Pax’s voice though he was hidden within the illusion he was spinning.

“… so this car gets decent mileage, has room enough to carry me and all my possessions to college next term, and won’t bankrupt me?” said the image of Michael.

“It’s a great choice,” replied an older heavyset man in slacks and suspenders.  “I still owe your dad one from when he stopped those robbers who tried to make off with all our cash and a couple of cars so I’ll make you a great price.”

“Now Ernest, you know I was just doing my job,” replied a new man in the image, he was about forty, greying at the temples, and looked fit.  He wore a jacket with a Sherriff’s patch on the arm and he had a gun holstered at his belt. “You shouldn’t be making any special deals for that.”

“Some of us are appreciative however we can be Pete,” he replied, Michael just looked eager, it was clear he wanted that SUV.

“He would have made a lousy poker player,” came Pax’s voice through the image again.

“Shush,” replied Coordinate, “save the commentary for later, I don’t want to miss anything.”

“What’s that?” Michael’s projected voice asked as his image raised his arm and pointed toward the street that lay alongside the dealership. The group of heroes turned to follow the image’s direction and saw a circular field of light forming in the middle of the street.  Several people, half a dozen, maybe more, emerged from the circle of light, one large figure was dragging some sort of metallic canister behind him.

“A bomb?” asked Jet Black.

‘I don’t know, Michael doesn’t know, it doesn’t look like he had any interaction with that man or whatever he was carrying.’

“Why isn’t the image clearer?” asked Coordinate, “I can’t tell how many people came out of that tunnel or get a good description of them.

‘This is his memory, he couldn’t see it clearly so neither can you. More is happening.’

The memory continued to play out in front of them. Michael’s father started to move.  “Stay back both of you, I’ll see what’s going on here,” he said as he loosened his gun in its holster.

The image continued to play forward, most of those who came out of the ‘tunnel’, as Coordinate called it, head off toward the center of town but two men came toward Michael and his father.  One was wearing what in other circumstance would have been called business casual; slacks, a sport coat and a turtleneck.  The other looked more menacing, black leather pants, a shirt that seemed to be made of straps and chains, and a long red leather coat that flared at the bottom.  The one in the coat raised a hand as they walked toward them and pulses of light started appearing around the lot, always near where people were standing, there weren’t many people here but looking around now, there were three other customers, a couple and a man, there were two or three employees as well; none of them were clear or distinct in the images.

“This is an awful lot to project using an untrained power,” Pax’s said, you could hear some strain in his voice.

“Keep it up,” replied Coordinate, “any of it might be important.”

From each pulse of light suddenly there came creatures the likes of which they had never seen.  The first one was clearly a dog of some sort but with fur in bristly patches that let off smoke, eyes glowing, fangs at least twice as long as could fit in their mouths, and tentacles coming from their shoulders, each tipped with what looked like a stinger.  The others farther away looked less distinct but seemed to be other animal forms.

“Those are the creatures he was projecting, or at least trying to project,” said Jet Black, “from the look of them I’m glad he couldn’t quite get them right.”

In the image the two men kept walking toward Michael and his father. The salesman, Ernest, suddenly broke and ran but, at a sharp gesture from the man in the red leather coat, the hound-like creature leapt after him bearing him to the ground as he screamed in terror.  The gun came out of the holster, pointed straight at the man in the red leather coat. “I don’t know what you did, but you have three seconds to get rid of those things put your hands above your head and lay down on the ground face down.”

“No I don’t think so,” said the man in the sport coat.  Unlike the attack on Ernest, there was no gesture this time to accent this man’s threat.  Suddenly Michael’s father’s arm flung up and to the side like someone grabbed his wrist.  The gun fell to the ground.  His head was forced back as if staring up at the sky and all at once a red line appeared across his neck as the flesh parted like it was cut by a knife.  Blood spurted out from the slice and his body fell to the ground unable to even gasp for air.

“Ahh, no elegance to that,” said the man in the sport coat, “no savor, no pleasure…” He turned toward Michael, “don’t worry; it won’t be that quick for you.”  He began advancing on the panicking boy.

The image froze suddenly as if someone hit a pause button.  Then the man in the sport coat began to move again, the rest of the image remaining still.  He turned and looked directly at Braindrain. “It won’t be that quick for you either.  You think you can come into his head?  Play in my sandbox? Well you can’t and now I’m going to show you why.”

“What’s going on,” yelled Pax, “I can’t stop projecting the image.”

‘Something is in his mind, its manifesting as this character and it has a hold on me I can’t cut the link either.  I’m going to have to dig it out of his mind and hope we don’t damage him.’ She let go of Michael’s head and floated up into the air again as if taking a fighting stance.

“Dispatch, this is Coordinate,” she said as she touched her earpiece, “I need additional telepaths to my location ASAP.”

“Again no time!” the image said angrily, “This should not be a rushed thing! This… should… be… art!”  There was a distinct pause before the image spoke again. “Ahh, well you’ll have plenty of my masterpieces to bring you wonder.  I’ll whip off a piece now to invoke other feelings.”

The figure advanced on Braindrain, Jet Black sped at it to tackle it but encountered no resistance as she ran through it and skidded out of control having expected an impact.  “It’s still just an image to us,” yelled Staccato, “we can’t affect it.”

‘I can,’ came Braindrain’s mental voice, ‘I need to drive this thing out, it’s sitting in Michael’s head, driving him mad, invoking and twisting memories, it’s horrible.’

“You can’t drive me out, he is mine, and so are you…” He lunged suddenly and grappled with the still floating Braindrain, there was a tremor in the air, rocks shifted on the ground in response to the impact.  Braindrain bringing her telepathy into play to fight this… memory… this after image of the villain, and her telekinesis reacted in turn.  On the ground Michael started shaking, as if seizing, froth appeared at his mouth.  Coordinate tried to hold him still, stop him from biting off his tongue.

‘I will beat you, I will free him.’

“Hmm you are a strong one.  Normally I would take my time and dissect each and every thing that makes you strong and use it to make you weak.  But today I don’t have the time.  Your friend there already called for help and I have enough of a link with you to know they will be coming quickly.  I’m afraid I can’t take the time to play with you.”  Michael’s body stopped shaking. “If you or the boy can’t be my masterpiece perhaps Pax can.  I think we’ll call it a study in suffering.” The figure floated upward as well and grappled with Braindrain, placing his hands on either side of her head as she grabbed his wrists to try and hold him back.  She seemed to be able to touch the image where Jet Black could not.

‘He left Michael’s mind… oh god he’s in here with me… he…’ then she began to scream, both in the minds of those around her and out loud.  It was the first time most of them had heard her actual voice.

“Lori!” screamed Pax, in his panic forgetting to use her codename.  The image of the man in the sport coat smiled the only word to describe it was chilling.  Suddenly his face began to dissolve with leprous patches of light coming through from inside.  The image leaned forward and kissed Braindrain then pulled back and began to laugh.  The laughter cut off as the image flew apart exploding into shreds of black each one falling with a fading sickly glow until it touched the ground and disappeared.  Braindrain looked over at Pax, began to mouth a word, and then fell out of the air like someone had cut her strings.  Jet Black caught her before she could hit the ground but she didn’t react to the impact at all.  He set her down next to Michael.  Pax had fallen to his knees and tears were pouring down his face.  “gone... she’s gone...” he was mumbling.  Braindrain was breathing but her eyes were open and stared glassily out at nothing.

“Dispatch,” Coordinate said shakily, “we need an extraction.”

A Calculated Response: Chapter 2

Chapter 2:

Sign me up

 

“Attention,” came the crack of Commander Rollins’ voice as he entered the room in his sharply pressed blue uniform. Their entire group had been milling about the room socializing; they expected some warning of his arrival. Though surprised at the command, they started to shuffle past each other and form into stiff backed ranks.

Rollins walked up and down the five rows of men followed by a second man who was keeping notes as he spoke.

“Untidy uniform, five demerits.” He moved on down the row.

“Shoes not shined, five demerits.” He moved to the next row.

“I smell liquor on your breath, ten demerits.” He moved to the next man in line, a heavy set youth who didn’t seem to fit in with the others.

“You are just one sorry individual, too fat, too weak, I’m not even sure what you are doing here, twenty demerits.” He turned to move on again when another voice spoke up.

“Piss poor commander, barely an excuse for a human being, only feels like a man when he can pick on someone who has to stand there and take it, fifty demerits.” The Commander sputtered, stopping in mid-insult.  He turned on his heel pushing through the line of men to stop in front of Marc Bloom. The commander loomed over Marc using his greater height to try and intimidate him. Marc looked up at him with an openly disrespectful smirk on his face and added, “Sir.”

“You think this is funny cadet?” he practically spit in Marc’s face, rage shown on his face, rage at someone in his command being outspoken and daring to call him on his actions.

“No Sir, I think it’s pathetic.” Marc knew he was ending his ROTC career but he didn’t come here to watch a small man bully someone he didn’t like. ‘I was raised with principles,’ he thought, ‘and what good are principles if you never take them out to see the light of day.’ “Here you are in charge of this group, your responsibility is to train us. Instead of belittling Cadet Bowen you should be encouraging him. But you’re too small a soul in too large a body… it’s just sad.”

“I’ll tell you what’s sad,” the cadet commander shot back, “just how miserable I am going to make your very existence.  I think five hundred pushups is a good start, and I want you to try and break the company record.  For every, oh let’s say, ten seconds over the record you are, Cadet Fatty over there has to do one hundred of his own.”

“Yes Sir,” Marc replied crisply, unsure why he was bothering to still follow this man’s orders when quite clearly he wouldn’t be in ROTC after this. He knew that would cost him his scholarship but ‘some things just aren’t worth the price you have to pay for them,’ he thought.  He saluted Rollins, once again wondering if he had watched every movie with a parody of a bad commander and actually was stupid enough to think that was how he was supposed to act.  Marc dropped into position and pushed up into the start of his set of five hundred.  Unlike the cadet he was defending, Marc actually looked crisply military and fit enough to do five hundred pushups; he had to coming from four generations of marines.  He let his thoughts drift away from the mind numbing activity and only came back to hear “four hundred and ninety nine, five hundred.  It’s a new record, over a minute shorter than the previous one.”

“Well,” the commander’s voice yelled over the cheers of the other cadets, “if you found that easy, I have another assignment for you.” Marc looked at him and saw the undisguised hate in his eyes. Not only had he made him look bad, he gained prestige while doing it, that record was going to stand for a long time. Collins stared into Marc’s eyes weighing just how much he thought the cadet could take. “Go get me the regimental flag from the top of the flag pole.” There was a moan from the gathered cadets; this was a frequent hazing ritual, no one could ever climb the sheer aluminum pole to get the flag and if they got up there they wouldn’t be able to hold on in order to get the flag off the pole.

Marc looked up at the top of the flag, it was at least twenty-five feet off the ground, the top of the flag illuminated by spotlights in the darkness; his eyes lost focus as he stared at it and then he said, “Yes Sir!”  He took off toward the flag pole at a run and while still a few feet away jumped into the air as if to make a flying side kick.  Some of the cadets likely thought he has trying to knock the flagpole down but he didn’t actually kick the pole.  He went flying past to its side and reached out and grabbed it as he went by.  He used his momentum to swing around the pole and spiral around moving up the pole in a series of acrobatic maneuvers the likes of which no one here had ever seen outside a circus.  When he reached the top of the pole he wrapped his legs tightly around it, as if sitting Indian style in midair.  He then deftly detached the flag, folded it neatly and loosening the grip his legs held on the pole slid swiftly to the bottom, flipping off at about five feet off the ground to land at the feet of the startled commander who had followed with the other cadets and stared at him in amazement. His eyes came back into focus, he looked down at the flag in his hand surprised, as if seeing it there just now, and wordlessly handed it to the commander.

Rollins looked ready to explode, his face was red, and his arm shook as he took the flag from Marc.  “How did you do that?” he asked, barely getting the words out in his anger.

“No idea, Sir!” Marc answered which was actually true, he knew he did it but everything from the order to the landing was pretty much just a series of images to him, as if he were one of the other cadets watching him do it.

“I don’t need a smart ass in my company,” Marc knew what was coming. He had been waiting for it, he just felt sorry for the other cadets who would probably be even more terrified of Rollins now. “Cadet Bloom, I hereby…”

He never got to finish the pronouncement.  Several Cadets and the Commander of the other ROTC Company ran in to the yard.  One of them had a tablet in his hands, “shut up everyone, listen to this.”

Marc was too far back to see the screen but the report rang out loud in his ears, “… we can confirm that the event that occurred this morning in Meredith Falls was indeed a terrorist action against the United States.  No one has claimed credit for the massive destruction as yet.  Death tolls are unclear but are expected to be between ten and twenty thousand. Only one inhabitant of the town has been found alive at this time.  Of the five heroes who entered the town shortly after the event four have been confirmed as killed in action and the last, Maximum, has been taken for medical care. Speculation…”

They never got to hear what the speculations were as everyone chimed in at once, talking over each other with their own speculations.

“… foreign terror cells…”

“… another Oklahoma City…”

“… 9/11 all over again…”

“… do you think there will be a draft?”

That last one reminded Marc of the days right after 9/11.  He was only a young child at the time but he remembered the same speculations at his home. He remembered his older brother trying to sign up to join the Marine’s that day, though they turned him away not taking anyone making the decision to join in immediate aftermath of the attack, he went back and joined, and served, and died overseas. “There won’t be a draft, there wasn’t a draft in 2001, there won’t be a draft now.”

“So speaks Mr. Know it all,” it was Rollins of course.

“Look Commander, I was just saying there are always many men, heroes, who will join up to defend our nation when something like this happens. We haven’t needed a draft since Vietnam.”

“Heroes will join up, you think so?”

“I know so,” getting angry at the question which was an insult to the memory of his brother.

“Well if that’s true why don’t you go sign up, Mr. Hero?”

Marc’s eyes defocused just a bit, “Yes, Sir!”

__________

The room was large and dark, lit only by the glow of multiple computer monitors. Desks and tables were haphazardly interspersed around the area with at least twenty computers sitting atop them all connected by a series of cables laid out like some giant insulated spider web.  The area was messy, scattered here and there by each computer were dirty plates, crumbs from chips and other foods, empty bottles from beer and soda, some of which was spilled on the floor.  There was an odor in the room, like the slight funk you would smell outside a gym’s locker room, sweaty clothes sitting trapped in a locker for days would radiate that scent.  

A rapid tapping sound echoed from all around the room. At each computer sat a young man hunched over and furiously pounding on the keyboard.  They didn’t speak to each other but they all worked in perfect coordination with one another. The click-click of the keys only highlighted the almost eerie lack of voices in this room jammed full of people. Every monitor showed a single figure moving at the command of the man at the keyboard.  They were all in near first person perspective as seen from immediately behind the figure; they were all wearing some sort of stylized armor and wielding oversized, out of proportion, ancient weapons.  The target of those weapons was a large dragon set back on the screen. There were bars across its form showing its strength and its remaining life.  The dragon was nearly dead; once it was they would be the first guild in the world to have killed him and open up the next phase of the raid.

“Eddie,” yelled a woman’s voice, “come upstairs.”

Annoyed at the interruption, clearly in the middle of raid night, the youth sitting at the first of the computers, right next to the stairs leading down into this cavern of a basement, yelled up the stairs, “I’m busy mom.” He even glanced away from the screen, continuing to hit key after key triggering attack sequences one after the other.  He could just picture the loot popping up as soon as the dragon died, first kill worldwide might get a nice bonus item, not to mention the bonus check from his sponsors and the interview with Online Gaming Today.

“Right now young man!” his mother yelled back down the stairs, didn’t she know this was important

“Mom, I’m about to kill Dragon Lord Garenza, that will make ‘Guild of One’ top rank in the world and bring me even more sponsors. When he’s dead I’ll go AFK and come upstairs.” He didn’t need to look to know all of the others sitting at the computers were shaking their heads in unison, each one’s expression reflecting the disbelief that someone would even think of interrupting them at such an important moment.

The door at the top of the stairs opened and bright light shone down into the basement.  The click of his mother’s heels on her way down and the creak up each stair as she stepped on it echoed in his ears.  ‘Not now, not now, not now’ he thought, ‘how could she be interrupting me now, now of all times. Five minutes all I need is five minutes.’ He didn’t have time to complain, five more minutes and he would be remembered forever, ‘well at least until the next expansion,’ he added silently in his head. He ignored this intruder into his world, even if it was his mother. He focused on the screens and keyboards in front of him and kept fighting the pixilated monster.

Everyone looked up suddenly as five of the screens went dead. The avatars of those players ceasing all motion and half of them dying on screen as the dragon lashed his tail and they did not move out of the way. Those among them playing healers shifted their focus to try and keep the remaining players alive and still defeat this enemy.  As they could they glanced away from their screens just long enough to see to their horror that she had flipped the power switch on the surge suppressor into which a row of the computers were plugged.  As the last light on the LAN network hub went out, the men sitting in front of those powerless computers appeared to pixelate and vanished just like their avatars had seconds before.  

She ducked under a series of cables strung across a cluttered path between tables and moved to the next power strip. “Mom, what are you doing?” came the voices of those who remained shouting from around the room.

“I said now and I meant it Eddie.”

“Mom, no!!” he shouted as she flipped the next switch, six more computers went dark and six more players winked out of existence. “You don’t know what you’ve done; my sponsors were giving me a huge bonus to finish that raid tonight.”

“Well that’s just too bad.”

“You’re costing me thousands of dollars in revenues, not to mention the notoriety. This will make me a mockery of all my friends in the game.”

“What friends, you could be playing with friends,” she shouted in frustration, “that might bother me half as much. But you’re down here, totally cut off from real life and totally cut off from real people. You’re playing one big game of solitaire and calling it multiplayer. I won’t have it anymore.” She passed between a large desk and a rectangular folding table and reached for another power supply.

“Mom, I’ll never forgive you for this, you are deliberately ruining my life.”

“I don’t care, this isn’t a life, it’s an escape at best and slow withdrawal from life at worst,” she said as she moved to and flipped the last power switch and the rest of the computers went dark and all but one of the players disappeared. She turned to face the one remaining player, watching the dragon breathe fire on his avatar on the screen behind him. “Upstairs now!” was all she said.

“Mom I pay rent, I earn money, this is like me going to your work and burning your files.”

“Eddie, I said upstairs now!” she accented her statement by a determined motion of her arm, her pointer finger extended and showing the way up to the first floor.

“And that’s another thing,” he practically yelled at his mother and tossing irrelevancies at her in his frustration and anger, “I told you to call me Edgar, I don’t go by Eddie anymore.”

“No, Edgar is a man’s name; you’re a boy sitting in his parent’s basement playing games.”

“And earning major money doing it!” he shouted.

“I don’t care!” she shot back. “Upstairs now!” She pointed again, up toward the only source of light left in the basement.

He grumbled and marched up the stairs with her following right behind him.

“In the living room Eddie.”  

He walked to the comfortable room still sulking over his raid being ruined. As always he noted his father’s chair sitting empty angled toward the television. His mother had left it tuned to CNN and a reporter’s voice was talking while a picture of ruined buildings played across the screen.  ‘Some third world country at war that mom is going to insist on donating to,’ he thought until he started to listen to the report to go with the image.

“Mom, did you interrupt my raid so you could make me watch a show about one of your precious causes? I told you I’d donate part of my earnings to your charities. Hell it will only get me more respect in the online community, gamer with a heart and all that.”

“Shut up and listen Eddie.” She gestured toward the television.

She grabbed the remote off an end table and raised the volume. “Only one survivor of the attack on Meredith Falls has been found at this time. We are still hopeful that others will be found in the wreckage but it is unlikely many more have survived this tragedy. Known dead at this time include three heroes and one intern who went in as part of the initial search and rescue.  Faraday, Tramp, Hard Drive will have their names inscribed on the Hero’s Memorial in Washington DC, it is expected that Boom Box will be awarded full certification posthumously and that his name will be inscribed alongside theirs.”

He stared at the television not hearing the words anymore. That wasn’t some third world nation, that was America, that was here. Meredith Falls, the sounded familiar somehow.  “Mom, is that the town we passed through on our way to Chicago?”

“Yes it is Eddie.”

He remembered. It was the last vacation they took before dad had died. They drove to Chicago and spent the week going to museums and the aquarium. ‘It must have been six or seven years ago,’ he thought. That town, it was a nothing sort of place, they stopped at the diner for lunch before finishing the drive to the city. He didn’t want to stop he wanted to get to Chicago, he remembered throwing a tantrum and having to sit alone in the car while mom and dad finished lunch.  That was the town he was looking at?  He couldn’t believe it.

The picture winked out, he turned to see his mother still with the remote in her hand. “I’m tired of you wasting your gift, I’m tired of you playing games while horrible things happen in the world that you could help fix.”

“Mom, we had this conversation back when I first developed my powers and then again when I was getting close to high school graduation. We talked about this for hours on end, we spoke to advisors, trainers, heroes who came to school programs, all the career day folks. I don’t have what it takes to make it in the HCP. If by some miracle I actually got accepted, I probably wouldn’t even get past the first semester.”

Once he might have hoped to, once he might have fantasized about becoming a hero, it was a common fantasy, especially for a super. He lived in reality though, well his mother might argue that. The online fantasy world aside he understood the way the world worked for a super who just wasn’t good enough. He accepted it long ago, sure it might have bothered him back then, but he knew what was real and he knew where his talents lay.

“Do you think that this is something super heroes are going to deal with? This is an attack against our country.  This is terrorism or a declaration of open war! They don’t need a glorified policeman in a costume; they need people to defend our nation. You want to fight bad guys well do it, get off that damn computer that’s stolen your life and fight the real bad guys. Forget about the HCP, I don’t care about the latest plot by Doctor Insanity, and I don’t care what the members of Force Majeure are doing, and I could care less about what supermodel Magnificent is dating. Half of what heroes do is over glorified publicity. The paparazzi see them as something between a drugged out teenage superstar and the next coming. I don’t want that life for you even if you could get it. I don’t want you to apply to the HCP,” she took a deep shuddering breath, “I want you to join Force Ops.”

For a second he couldn’t believe what he heard. Force Ops, people who couldn’t make it through, or even into, the HCP. Losers of the super world he heard them called. “Mom, are you crazy, if I don’t have the physical stamina for HCP what make you think I have it for the Army?”

“They will toughen you up, they aren’t like the HCP, they aren’t trying to cut you, they aren’t going for the select few. They want anyone with talents like yours to defend our country and stop travesties like we just saw.”

“Mom, it’s crazy, I’m not a hero, I just a guy living in his mother’s basement. My power, it’s not meant for fighting super villains. It makes me a great gamer but not much else.”

“Oh Eddie, you can be so much more,” she said with sympathy on her face. “I remember when you first got your powers, you wore your Titan t-shirt for a week straight insisting that someday you would be his intern,” she laughed. “I remember back before all the advisors had their say. You wanted to be a hero. You took a beach towel tied it around your neck and went a whole week insisting we call you ‘Many Eddies’, dad actually did it until you decided you would call yourself Eddie Infinity.” A tear slowly worked its way down her cheek, his cheeks were damp too.

“It was a silly name,” he managed to choke out as his whole body shuddered, half laughing, half crying. His mother came over and put her arms around him, the two of them stood holding each other, rocking back and forth crying.

I can’t be a hero, and I’m no soldier,’ he thought, ‘and Force Ops, they’re the laughing stock of the super world, not good enough to be heroes, not smart enough to make money off their powers. The dregs, hardly better than powered.’ How could he even think about joining Force Ops? He was making good money playing games and he was good at it. He had actual fans, most of whom he knew also lived in their parents’ basements.  Force Ops, that’s just crazy. ‘Still,’ he thought, ‘they are defending our country, they are serving a purpose. Aren’t they heroes too.’

“Mom,” he began hesitantly his head coming up from her now damp shoulder, “you really think me joining Force Ops is a good idea?”

“Oh Eddie, I’ll miss you, I’ll worry about you constantly, but yes, I think it’s the only chance at getting what you really want, what you haven’t been able to bring yourself to admit you need. I think it’s the best idea in the world.”

He shook his head, he couldn’t believe what he was about to say. “Alright mom, I want you to be proud of me… I want... I want dad to be proud of me… I don’t want to disappoint either of you.”

“Eddie, as upset as I was with you using your talent for nothing but playing games I could never be truly angry with you.”

He sighed, “so, what do I do next?”

“I looked it up, you have to go to a Force Ops recruiter to enlist and the nearest one is in the city. I’ll take you there now Edgar, go get your wallet, you’ll need your driver’s license to sign up.”

__________

The news feed across the giant video screens in Times Square was, of course, showing continuing footage of Meredith Falls. A huge crowd had gathered watching the progress of the rescue teams.  Kenny York glanced up at the news feed, still only one survivor found, at least there weren’t any more deaths or injuries being reported among the heroes. Kenny pushed his way through the crowd. He had to be careful, in his haste he could easily hurt someone by accident. His goal was ahead of him.  Sitting on a traffic island between Broadway and Seventh Ave., it was a boxlike, freestanding building, two stories tall. There were five shields adorning the narrow side he was approaching. He looked at each in turn, the names of the groups they represented in block letters below them: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and lastly Force Ops. Force Ops, he knew, was technically a division of the Army, but most people considered it a separate branch of the military. Above the five shields in large letters were the words, ‘U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station.’ That was where he wanted to go.  He had to go around to the other side of the building to enter. This side looked significantly different than the rest of the building. Another giant video screen took up the entire face of the second story and like all the other screens in Times Square it was showing scenes from Meredith Falls. The first story looked almost dingy, like an old store front.  On the right there as a metal framed frosted glass door.  The remainder of the wall was a large window and on the inside of the glass was a large poster that said ‘U.S. Armed Forces Career Center,’ set above the familiar visage of Uncle Sam pointing outward resting atop the slogan ‘I Want You.’

He had travelled all the way to Manhattan to the armed forces recruiting center in Times Square to find a recruiting station that had a Force Ops representative present.  After all the fuss with recruiters speaking to him when he was approaching High School graduation, he didn’t expect it to be so difficult. ‘I know I broke a bunch of rules getting here’ he thought as he pictured windows shattering as he flew past, ‘but that shouldn’t matter to them.’

Kenny opened the door slowly.  He entered the recruiting station set in the midst of one of the best known areas of Manhattan.   The inside of the station was small, the whole thing couldn’t me much more than five hundred square feet.  He saw five cubicles set up in the main area, there were a fair number of men and even a few women milling around. A man in a Marine uniform was standing addressing the crowd. “Once again, for those of you who just came in, we are not taking any recruits today.” Kenny stared a bit confused, then a memory from childhood resurfaced, he couldn’t have been more than five years old, home from school, watching the aftermath of the attack that leveled the Twin Towers. He vaguely recalled the news anchor saying recruiters had closed their doors due to the influx of people wanting to join up while not thinking straight in the hysteria of the day. He stepped past the crowd, speeding up slightly before the Marine could react and approached the cubicle with the Force Ops seal next to it.  He glanced inside the small cubby. There was a man in a black uniform, with an insignia indicating he was a Captain, sitting behind a desk.

There were two flags flanking the desk, one the stars and stripes of the United States, the other the insignia of Force Ops.  The seal of Force Ops was painted on the wall behind the desk. An American Bald Eagle, lightning bolts in its claws, emblazoned directly over a shield.  Encircling the seal was the motto of Force Ops, “Nostras in servitutem”, Our power in service.

The Captain looked up just as the Marine came up behind Kenny and attempted to put a “come with me” grip on his shoulder and wrist.  Kenny let him take hold and simply ignored it.  The Captain raised an eyebrow and said, “Staff Sergeant, I think you should just leave this one to me.  He’s a bit above your weight class.”

The Marine glanced over at the Captain and let go of Kenny.  Throwing a quick salute he growled, “Yes Sir!” obviously not happy with the suggestion that he couldn’t handle a kid like Kenny.

“We aren’t taking anyone today young man,” the Captain echoed the Marine’s previous statement. “We find it’s not a good idea to enlist people when they are caught in the grip of hysteria that follows things like Meredith Falls. They end up deciding they made a rash decision and no one is happy.”

“I’m not making a rash decision Sir,” Kenny replied as sincerely as he could manage. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, Meredith Falls just provided the incentive for me to finally take a stand and make the choice I wanted to make. Not the choice others wanted for me.”

“Well, if that’s the case you can come back in a week or so when the immediate rush of emotion has ended and enlist then. Judging from what I’m sensing from you we’d be happy to have you.”

“Sir, I really need to sign up now.  In a week it will be too late.”

“Son, joining the United States military and serving your country is the right of every American. That won’t be any different next week.”

“Yes Captain, it will.  Next week will be too late.”

“And why is that?”

“I’m supposed to join the HCP,” he said pulling five letters out from his pocket.  He spread them out on the desk. He had heard most supers in Force Ops had lower level powers, people who could never make it into, let alone through the HCP. Each letter was from one of the HCP programs around the country. Each was an acceptance. “I’m supposed to start at Lander next when summer ends.”

“You still have several weeks before you are supposed to report to Lander.  Join next week. Send Lander your regrets. There is nothing preventing you from taking the time we are requiring as a cooling off period to let the outrage melt away a bit.”

“Umm…” Kenny hesitated, he wasn’t here to air dirty laundry, he was here to join Force Ops.

“Son, if you are serious about joining Force Ops, you had best get used to answering direct questions from superior officers. Clearly there is something else going on here.”

“Yes, Sir, of course,” the words tripped out of his mouth, “it’s just that my father is insisting I go to the HCP and next week is the deadline where they can’t take new students.  If I drop out after that, well I don’t really think it’s fair to take a spot and then withdraw leaving it empty and not giving someone else a chance at it. And I can’t withdraw unless there is no option to go back or dad will make me go back.”

“You’re eighteen, I assume, or you wouldn’t be here to sign up?”

“Yes, Sir”

“Then if it means that much to you withdraw your name and don’t tell your father till afterwards.”

“No, Sir… I mean Yes, Sir, but that won’t work Sir.”

“And why not?”

“My father will find out.”

“If you’re over eighteen the school won’t tell your father, you aren’t a minor, he doesn’t automatically get notified.”

“No Sir, not officially.”

“And why do you think he will find out anyway?” Kenny mumbled a reply which the Captain could not understand. “Son if you can’t even say it perhaps you have some growing up to do before considering the military life.”

“I said, my father is Adamant,” he choked out hurriedly.

The Captain froze for a second. “I see.” His brow creased momentarily. “And you have the same power set?”

“Umm… actually I have more power, maybe one and a half or two times as strong,” he blushed as he said it, embarrassed to appear like a braggart. “You see, in my family the power has been growing stronger for at least three or four generations.  My grandfather fought along Captain Starlight, my great-grandfather was a circus strongman famous for tying barbells in knots.  Everyone thought it was a trick but we still have some of the barbells at home.” Kenny was babbling now, a full information dump being triggered by the one question.  “My mother, she’s a super too and I got her powers as well and amplified just like dad’s powers were, they actually work together, they said it was synergistic abilities and no one had ever seen such a perfect melding before,” he said in one long stream of thought without pause.

“Take a breath son. I can understand your concerns, I’m sure your father has many close friends in the HCP and someone would tell him if you withdrew, even though they aren’t supposed to.”

“Exactly, he…”

The Captain raised his hand stopping Kenny before he could finish what he was saying.  “And you want to be enlisted so there isn’t anything he can do about it, he can’t pressure you to stick with the HCP.” Kenny just nodded in answer.  The Captain sat for a long moment considering it before he finally shook his head.  “Listen son, if what you say is true you have a major gift, but as much as I would love to tweak the HCP by enlisting you into Force Ops, I have my orders. No one enlists today. Come back in a week and I will happily swear you in.”

“But Captain,” Kenny started to protest but was interrupted when the phone on the Captain’s desk rang.

He picked up the receiver after one ring. “Captain Reynolds… Yes… Yes… Well no, the orders were… Yes… Yes Sir!”

The Captain hung up the phone and looked at Kenny again before opening a drawer in the desk and pulling out a clipboard with a stack of papers on it.

“Timing apparently is everything, the orders to not enlist anyone this week have been rescinded,” he said curtly. “Mr. York, if you would fill out this paperwork, we can begin processing your enlistment.”

Kenny took the clipboard and pen offered by the Captain and began to fill in the personal data required on the sheets. Only after he handed it in, swore his oath, and was given a time and place to report for training, did he realize that he had never given the Captain his name.

__________

The heavy beat of the music and the subtle strobe of the lighting all called attention to the beautiful woman walking, no strutting forward wearing a tight fitting gossamer gown in bright primary colors. Donna stopped at the edge of the stage, put her left hand on her hip and struck a pose. Suddenly massive applause rang out from the audience as she stood there wearing the latest creation from Adriánne, this season’s hottest new designer with her new collection called ‘Superhero Chic’. Flashes went off all across the hall as everyone tried to capture the perfect moment on the catwalk.  She pivoted on her heel and strutted back up the stage and behind the curtain, stripping off her clothes as soon as she was out of sight so she could be placed into the next outfit she was modeling.  Three people stood around her nearly naked body applying powder and then draping each new piece of clothing over her so it fell just right.  She wondered for a second where her modesty went, when she first started acting she blushed horribly the first time she was asked to do a nude scene, she never did dredge up the courage to do it. Now she stood there in just a pair of skimpy panties with she wasn’t sure how many people around her and barely noticed it. ‘It’s amazing how much you change in this business,’ she thought to herself.

The next outfit was a one piece bathing suit in metallic mesh that shimmered in several different hues. It subtly reminded her of the costume that Gemstone made famous. She stepped into a pair of matching strappy sandals and a filmy, see-through, robe was placed over her shoulders while a broad hat and sunglasses were put on her head. Two other models had gone down the runway and back in the time it took her to change outfits and now she was ready. She took her place behind the model about to step on to the runway and waited for the shift in music that signaled her turn to go. Only one more rotation and the show would be over.

Her musical cue came and she stepped out once more her walk much more casual and flirty than the measured strut she used in the formal gown.

I can’t believe they almost canceled this,’ she thought to herself as she sauntered down the catwalk, keeping the pace set by the music which had taken on a light amusing air. Monitors set along the path she walked flashed images of Gemstone in action evoking the similarities and making every woman in the audience wish that if they can’t be her, at least they can look like her. ‘Sure the destruction of that small town was terrible but that’s no reason to stop a fashion show.’ She considered her thoughts as she easily turned into the climactic pose at the farthest end of the stage. ‘Alright, truth be told, canceling it would probably have been more respectful, but I need the money this show is going to pay me.’ Her last acting job was months ago and she wasn’t getting any residuals from any of her work, none of it was being shown.  Modeling on the runway was her last chance and this was her big break. She was going to be the final model for the biggest show of the season.

She posed just long enough for the fashion reporters to jot down their description, the photographers to snap a few shots, and the buyers to get an eyeful and then she moved on heading backstage for her final clothing change. ‘I have to thank my lucky stars that Mitchel, that slimy PR guy, thought of turning it into a benefit.’ The ads suddenly read ‘Superhero Chic supports our heroes in their efforts in Meredith Falls.’ She had to admit it was brilliant even though she felt like she had to shower, and not from the sweat she was working up.

Passing through the curtain separating the audience from the backstage area she headed to her changing area. Something was wrong, her assistants weren’t there, just one intern holding her street clothes. “What’s going on,” she said annoyed as all hell.  “Where are my dressers? Where’s the finale piece? I’ve only got seven minutes before my cue.”

The intern shook under her sudden vocal assault. “I… I don’t know Miss Bristow. I was just told to hand you your things, tell you to change and meet Mr. Westin in the trailer.”

“What? Mitchel in the trailer, that doesn’t make any sense. What about the finale? I’m wearing the damn showpiece.”

“I, uh, well that is, uh, Neveah is changing into it now.”

“Neveah? That whore, she probably slept with Mitchel to get the finale. That was mine. I’ll call a lawyer, I’ll have his balls for this one.” She looked over at the trembling intern, just some college student trying to break into the fashion industry. It’s not her fault she realized. ‘What’s the expression? Don’t kill the messenger. OK then, I guess I’ll go kill the one who gave her the message.’

She grabbed her clothes from the intern and started to strip off the bathing suit. The intern blushed suddenly. ‘I probably would have myself a year or so ago,’ she thought. Then she stopped for a second before pulling her clothes on quickly, ‘Oh my I wonder what I’m doing to her, doesn’t matter what her orientation is, I’m sure as angry as I am right now I’m probably hitting her buttons about as hard as they’ve ever been hit.’ She blushed a bit herself at the realization but simply added, “it’s not your fault.” Whether she meant the message or the confusion she was probably feeling right now even she wasn’t sure. She stalked off heading toward the trailer just as she heard applause coming from the other side of the curtain. ‘Well I’m sure this will only add to my reputation,’ she thought ironically.

She stalked to the trailer that served as an office for the people running the show. She didn’t bother to knock she would have ripped the door off the hinges if she could. “Mitchel you god damned piece of shit, I am going to sue you for everything you are worth. I don’t know what Neveah did for you to get my spot but you better hope it was good because no one is going to touch you after I get through with you.”

“Donna,” he started calmly.

“Don’t you try to calm me down,” she threw back not letting him get a word in. “I’ve seen you handle angry models before but none of them ever had the finale pulled from them as they were about to change for it.  I will make you sorry you were ever born. Just because I wouldn’t sleep with you, you think…”

“Donna, shut up before you say something that will make you unemployable.”

She froze, what was he talking about unemployable?

“That stopped you short didn’t it?” He looked right at her unblinking, there was a slight twitch in his left eye. “Donna, this isn’t about who you or Neveah would or would not sleep with. It’s about your, shall we say, special circumstances.”

If talking about her being unemployable gave her pause then that froze her solid. She felt her breath stop, she had to force herself to actually gulp at the air. “What… what do you mean special circumstances?”

“Donna, we know about your abilities.

“M..M..My what,” Donna stammered, “what are you talking about?”

“Donna, please, you think we don’t know why you failed as an actress.  Everyone loved you in rehearsals, everyone was thrilled in primary filming. But in editing it all fell apart. Playback just couldn’t capture whatever it was you were radiating.”

“Who told you that?” she demanded. “It’s all a bunch of rumors started by jealous people, you know what Hollywood is like. I wouldn’t go to the casting couch… you know that first hand. It killed my career, and now it’s killing my modeling,” she accused.

He sighed in response, “you are beautiful, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and I work with women considered the most beautiful in the world.” He stared at her, gazed longingly at her, a look of hunger coming over him, “truth be told, I probably would give almost anything to get you into my bed.” He turned away so as not to have to look at her, “but that alone tells me something more than just beauty,” she could see his shoulders slump from behind, she knew from experience that his heart, such as he had, was breaking.

“OK,” she started, deciding to take a different approach, “let’s say I am doing something. Let’s say people who watch me model are drawn to me, like Ulysses and the Sirens. So what, isn’t that what you want, people to watch me and think the clothes I am wearing are making me that way?”

“Yes and no,” he replied, turning again to face her, “too good is bad.”

“What how can too good be bad?”

“You had problems as an actress, you never made a dent as a photo model for the same reasons, the test shots never looked right.  So you decided to become a runway model, recorded whatever it is you do doesn’t work but live… well there it should be an asset.” He was hitting too close to the mark for her comfort, it was like he could see right through her.

He paused and half turned to look away before deciding to face her for his accusations. “Even in the catwalk shows you have a problem. We aren’t the only ones who know. Word of your... umm… special circumstances has gotten out.”

Shock played across her face, she thought she had kept the secret well. No one ever talked to her like this before, her contracts were just ended, telling her she didn’t film well in the end. “Who… who knows? What are they saying?”

“Rumors have reached the buyers, we’ve been informed they aren’t sure if they like a piece because it’s a good piece or because you are wearing it. In this business, uncertain buyers are only slightly better than buyers who are certain they hate a piece. They look at the pictures taken on the runway to decide what to purchase for their store and how many units to order. It’s only in bad television that they are so moved by the show they come up checkbook in hand to buy at the edge of the runway. And you my dear, don’t photograph well,” he finished wryly.

“So, different medium, same problem.”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that, in that last walk people actually thought you were Gemstone come to model the outfit and represent Adriánne. Do you know how many legal problems that is going to cause us? We are already getting calls from her agent and her lawyers.”

“I didn’t mean to… I just was trying to do my best showing off the outfit.”

“Yes, I know and you looked fantastic and so did the outfit but it was too much. Accenting it is one thing but you are enhancing it beyond what anyone can believe and then the reality doesn’t match the show.”

“So… does that mean I’m going to be sued by Gemstone?”

“No, there really isn’t anything she can do and she knows it. We didn’t advertise her coming, we didn’t use her name, we didn’t do anything misleading, at least not in writing and not intentionally.  We didn’t use her image and the photos will back us up.” He laughed, “see there are good parts to that.”

“So why am I getting dragged in here.”

“This is a grab by her agent, believe me I know him. You may think I’m slimy but that guy gives slime a bad name. He inherited Gemstone’s account from his father who was, what I’m sure you would consider, good man.  I’m sure even Gemstone’s legendary patience won’t be able to put up with him much longer.” He pulled out a folder, “but all of that is beside the point. Just because she can’t sue us now doesn’t mean we, or more specifically you, can keep doing it. We pulled you here and now to show others we don’t support that.”

Donna realized the full implications of what he was saying and suddenly broke down in tears. He approached her quickly, she knew that he almost couldn’t help. “No, don’t come over here.” But it was too late he was kneeling beside her and hugging her to him.

It’s just the power,’ she thought, ‘he’s still an unmitigated ass and a lecher to boot.’ But she held him and hugged him to her just as fiercely.

“Hey, it will be OK,” he said soothingly. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“Yes it is, there’s nothing left,” she replied in a shuddering voice between wracking sobs.

“Of course there is, shush, calm down, dry the tears, and tell me why you think this is the end of the world.”

“I can’t do film or photo shoots because I don’t come across the same way when I’m recorded. I can’t do live theatre because I’m too distracting. And now I can’t do runway because I make the clothes look too good?”

“Well that and because none of the photos of you in the clothes look the same,” he said without thinking. “I… I’m sorry, force of habit.”

“I have nothing left,” she began to shake, tears flowing freely into his shoulder.

“Donna,” he said soothingly yet still sounding slightly smarmy to her, “you’re a beautiful woman, even in pictures. The equal of any model here. Just turn it off, don’t use your abilities, and you can keep doing this. Use them here and there for a boost when the cameras are off, that’s fine, but don’t use them show something incredible to everyone which doesn’t quite look the same in the proofs.”

“It’s not that simple. I can’t just stop using it.”

“Sure it is,” he whispered gently to her stroking her hair, “you’re using it as a crutch but you don’t need it. Just turn off your power.”

“I…” she suddenly pushed him away and stood turning away from him head slung low. “No… you don’t understand… I…”

A look of shock came across his face, she didn’t need to see it to know it was there, she had seen it before on her parent and her sister, on her best friend, and on her former fiancée. She didn’t turn back to face him, she didn’t need to see it again. Even on someone she couldn’t stand she couldn’t face that look. “Wait a minute Donna. Are you saying? Holy sh... Are you telling me you’re a powered?”

“I’ll get my things and just go.”

“Wait Donna!  You… You’re… I…”

“OK Mitchel,” she said hesitantly turning back toward him at last, “I’ve been through this before. What’s it going to take to keep your silence?” She looked at him with what she hoped was a suggestive look, despite the red eyes and running makeup.

He looked at her, emotions clearly warring on his face, “Oh and she took me up to a height and showed me all the kingdoms of heaven and earth,” he misquoted.

She looked at him confused.

“Donna, I know you don’t think much of me.”

“No… I…” she stammered.

“No, let me finish. I know you think I have no soul. And maybe you are right but I would like to think I am not that person. If I took what I think you are offering… well let’s just say I couldn’t live with myself.” He stared right at her, every part of him told of the longing he had for her, even in her current state. “And,” he added slowly, “if I did it, I would know I had no soul. Your secret is safe with me but I suggest you get out of this business. Do you need any money, you sounded a bit desperate and there are many people out there who wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of it.”

“No… I’m just going to go.” She was already half way through the trailer door when suddenly she turned back and simply said, “thank you Mitchel. You’re a better man than either of us thought you were.” And then she left, nearly running to get away from him before one of them did something stupid.

She went to her locker and cleared it out. The area was pretty much empty at this point so she wandered around backstage wondering where to go and what to do with her life. She went to the stage itself, ‘one last trip down the catwalk,’ she thought and passed one last time through the curtains.

The stage was a disaster, everyone had left to go to the after party, chairs were knocked over, papers were scattered on the floor. Empty plastic champagne glasses tossed wherever the drinkers felt like, sticky residue drying where it spilled.

Only a few of the custodial staff were there, they weren’t cleaning though. The video screens which showed bright and enticing images to compliment the clothes as the models glided passed them were now showing scenes from the devastation at Meredith Falls.

CNN’s “A View from the Air” was on twenty screens spread across the entire catwalk as well as a mosaic of screens above the backdrop. ‘It’s amazing how popular a news show about supers and powered hosted by a retired hero has become,’ she thought. ‘I wonder how easy he found it to move on from his chosen career.’ The sheer sarcasm of the question even came through in the quiet of her mind.

A chorus of Joshua Devonshire, who was ‘All-Seeing’ in his hero days, was opining on the multiple screens impossible to ignore due to the sheer overwhelming repetition. “The prevailing belief is that the tragedy of Meredith Falls was indeed an attack on the town. Whether it was terrorism, villainy, or technology gone terribly wrong no one is sure.”

Well at least he’s admitting his ignorance instead of bulling through on sheer imagination.

“Despite this,” the many images continued, “there has been a public outcry for more protection and more prevention of super power related attacks. Calls for increasing the Hero Certification Programs, eliminating the Hero Certification Programs, stricter laws and harsher punishments for villainous supers, increasing the role of Forces Ops, the founding of a police force made entirely of supers, and expanding the entire Department of Variant Human Affairs have all been heard.”

She stopped listening and wandered out of the hall. She had decisions to make and no time to make them. Devonshire’s words ran through her head over and over. There would be changes, of that she was sure. But what would they be? The HCP didn’t matter to her one way or another, nor would a police force of supers or changes to the DVA. She worried what stricter laws on powereds would do to her. After what Mitchel told her about the lawyers and their threats, she no longer knew when anyone would accuse her of anything. She didn’t want to end up in jail and right now it looked like she was going to end up homeless. If that happened she was sure jail would be the best thing she could hope for.

Devonshire said one more thing,’ she considered hesitantly, ‘Force Ops. How can I be thinking about that? I’m not Army material. But what am I? I’m not an actress, I’m not a model, I’m not good at anything else. I’ve always had my looks to fall back on and that’s what’s causing me all my problems now.’

Well,’ she thought coming to a decision that she hated only slightly less than being homeless, jailed, raped, or murdered. ‘The Army was always supposed to be the last resort for people who had nowhere else to go. Maybe… well maybe.

__________

 

A group of teenage boys and girls, all wearing white outfits with belts of various colors proclaiming them to be martial artists of various skill levels, were gathered around a monitor anchored on the wall in the viewing room of the White Fox Dojo in Chicago. Normally it was set to loop promotional material but right now it was tuned to a news station.

Like most people at that very moment, they were watching continuing coverage of the tragedy at Meredith Falls. The screen switched from distant shots of the town to a reporter recapping what had happened so far. Up till now it was the same information repeating again and again, so called experts discussing things they knew nothing about, speculation and absolute fantasy. But now it looked like they were going to finally get some new material.

“The first responders have withdrawn from the town for the evening for reasons of safety. The entire search and rescue group will finally enter Meredith Falls in the morning and begin the difficult task of digging through the rubble in search of survivors,” a woman’s voice said in a broadcaster’s perfect Midwestern English. “Currently, we have confirmed and can report the following:”

“Of the initial heroes on scene, Faraday, Tramp, Boom Box, and Hard Drive are all confirmed dead.”

“Maximum has been found alive and has been evacuated from the area for immediate medical care.”

Cam looked over at the youngsters hearing about the deaths of their heroes. He wondered how this would affect them, would any have nightmares, would any be traumatized. He was their teacher, their sensei; it was part of him to concern himself with their wellbeing, both physical and mental. In a more walled off corner of his mind, he wondered just what it was that could hurt Maximum so badly that he had to be evacuated instead of simply being treated by an onsite healer.  An earlier report said Willowbark was with them. There wasn’t much that woman couldn’t heal.

“Of the 45 heroes who went into the town under the leadership of Tantamount:”

“Cleavage, Arc Angel, Conduit, Glint, Tundra, Ideal, and Elevate were all seriously wounded but treated at the camp established outside of town and were able to return to duty.”

That was what Cam was talking about, Maximum should be with them now, just like those other seven heroes. It meant there was something significant they weren’t saying.

“Braindrain was evacuated to the supers unit at Barnes Hospital in Chicago. She was unconscious and is listed in serious but stable condition. The entire medical staff and all student healers from the HCP program at Sizemore Tech have joined the staff at Barnes to help in any way they can as more injured are evacuated to the Chicago area.

That surprised Cam just as much, to hear a telepath was evacuated and unconscious usually means their own defenses shut their mind down to protect it. She might need other telepaths to coax her out and he didn’t recall hearing the names of any particularly powerful ones in the list of the heroes and other supers all waiting to step back into that town.

“Lastly, the hero known as Rasa, lost his life in the search when an unstable building he was searching apparently gave way on top of him.  He failed to respond to radio calls and was found buried under the collapsed rubble. A tragic loss to the world.”

Cam couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Of course it was possible that any hero could have bad luck and the misfortune to be under a pile of falling debris.  But it’s hard to believe that was enough to kill him. Rasa wasn’t physically enhanced so it was certainly possible but something doesn’t seem right.

“As the various PEERS groups prepare to enter the town in the morning an official of the HCP programs, speaking anonymously, has stated that the programs are considering sending the junior and senior classes of all five training programs to aid in the search and rescue effort. The HCP has declined official comment.”

Cam couldn’t believe what he was hearing, heroes were dead, others were seriously injured, maybe beyond the ability for healers to fix them and they were talking about sending in unseasoned students. That’s like putting kittens in a kennel.

His thought was interrupted by his cell phone playing a piece of Mambo #5, “… a little bit of Jessica here I am…”

“I’ve been waiting for your call.” Cam said by way of greeting.

“Cam you utter ass why aren’t you here, we’re just a few hours from you.”

“Jess, I have responsibilities here.”

“While I’m sure your students will be devastated without you to teach them beginner Karate, you should be here helping out.”

“No Jess, you know that’s not my life.”

“Wrong Cam, I know helping people is all you want to do.  You just didn’t want the bullshit that went with it.”

“Well maybe, but I’m sure no one there wants to see my face. I’m a waste of talent and ability and didn’t just waste mine, I wasted those who supported me and sacrificed for me and…”

“Enough Cam, yeah you’re a waste of space, but you don’t need to be.”

“Thanks, I love you too Jess, I’m going to hang up now, I feel like putting my fist through a TV.”

“No Cam, no hanging up, no breaking things.  Don’t all those martial arts you teach tell you to be calm and balanced, violence isn’t the point of learning to fight or some nonsense like that?”

“Heh,” he chuckled, “yeah well I’m not always great at practicing what I preach.”

“Listen Cam, I’m busy here and I need to tell you some bad news. Lori…”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“No Cam, it’s worse than anything you could have heard.”

“Oh god is she…”

“No, but it might have been better if she was.”

“Damn,” he said, going a bit more numb inside, “how’s Luke?”

“How do you think he is?” she answered back spitefully. “That’s a stupid question.”

“Jess, I…”

“Cam,” she said stopping him before he could make another excuse or derail the conversation again, “listen, they need me, I need to go, but here’s the deal.  I’m calling in the debt.”

“Jess…”

“No!’ she shouted in his ear. “Don’t talk just listen,” her voice had an edge of sadness and rage all mixed together. “You owe me and you know it and now I’m calling in the marker.  I want you here, now, and then you and I are going to talk about just what you are going to do with the rest of your life and it’s not teaching little boys and girls to shatter boards.  Be here before dawn.” The phone went dead in his hands.

He shook with suppressed anger, at Jess, at Lori, at himself, at the world. He had to let it out. If he didn’t the wrong person saying the wrong thing to him was going to get hurt.

He went into his personal training room, it was where he alone went to exercise or work on his frustrations.  Things had been good lately, he hadn’t stepped foot in here in a long time.  His old training gear was here, draped in tarps so no one who came in would see what he had there. He wasn’t here for the gear though, he simply needed to purge the anger he was feeling away from anyone who might set it off.

For several minutes he simply stood in the center of a large mat, similar to what gymnasts used for floor routines, if perhaps a bit springier. Anyone watching wouldn’t think he was doing anything but standing absolutely still but there was more to it than that, breathing in and out, focusing, meditating.  When he felt he was in control enough he began to run through some basic katas in order to warm up. When those did nothing to alter his mood and bring him calm he moved on to more advanced forms.  He was a master of several different styles; his trophies from competition and exhibition were displayed outside in the lobby to bring in more customers.  He moved from simple Karate to Tai Chi to Muay Thai to Krav Magah and then to the more energetic dance of Capoeira. When none of these satisfied his need he at last moved on to his own personal style which blended elements from all the traditions he knew and fit his own unique abilities as well.  

The peace that normally came from the repetition of the katas eluded him. He had known deep down that it wouldn’t be enough and he knew what he needed to do now. He needed to hit something. To let the anger out in a focused burst before it consumed him from within. He walked over to the covered equipment and pulled off one of the tarps, coughing as he choked on the dust that flew into the air. There was frame under the tarp, it was dull and gray-black, some alloy originally developed for armor to withstand extremes of force.  It consisted of two platforms that could be adjusted to hold boards or cinder blocks to be broken.  Next to it sat stacks of boards. They had a grain to them, like wood, but they were definitely not made of wood. He turned on the power to the frame, it began to hum as huge electromagnets in the base began to spin and generate force.  One board after another was placed between the two stands, five, ten, twenty; eventually he had a stack nearly four feet thick with barely a space in between them, the frame held them only inches from the floor.

He took position on the far side of them, facing the door. He closed he eyes and focused on his breathing. He heard the door to the room open, he ignored it. He heard a voice shout out to him, “Cam, what are you doing,” he ignored it. He opened his eyes and only saw the stack of boards as he shouted a “Kiai!!!” at the top of his lungs and brought his curved hand down on the top of the stack. The boards shattered under the force of the blow, half flying to his left and half flying to his right. The magnetic field, meant to prevent them from leaving the frame and doing damage took hold.  Most of them were stopped but with a shriek, the top few which had the most direct force applied to the shot out of the grip of the field and flew through the air.  The positioning of the frame was such that none of them flew toward the entrance to the room but the rest of the room didn’t fare as well. There were crashing sounds as the boards crashed into other tarp covered pieces of equipment. Some of the very top boards arced through the air until the collided with the walls causing the entire building to shake and burying themselves twelve inches deep into reinforced concrete blocks. When Cam opened his eyes to look, the entire stack was split down the middle. His business partner George was standing in the door with a look of shock on his face, it must have been him who shouted before he broke the boards. Behind George students were starting to appear searching for the source of the crash. George quickly entered the room and pulled the door closed behind him with a shout to the students to return to the dojo and wait for them.

Cam hadn’t moved at this point, he just stood there focusing on his breathing. Images from the television were running through his head, a voice echoing words, “dead… wounded… serious but stable condition… tragic loss to the world.” And then Jess’ voice, “I’m calling in the debt,” a debt that could never be repaid. Other voices without faces to attach to them “waste… loser… shameful… uncaring…” He had faced those voices in his nightmares for the last seven years. And now he didn’t know if he could keep facing them.

George was standing in front of him now. He had grabbed him by the shoulders and was shaking him to try to get a response. “Cam what are you doing, those are watered steel boards… how did you?”

“They’re not steel George,” Cam finally ended his silence. ‘He sees the grain and thinks of folded steel, makes sense but even watered steel would have just bent around my arm,’ Cam thought to himself, ‘but telling you that wouldn’t help here George.’

“Your hand, is it OK?” he asked as he grabbed it to examine expecting to find it shattered beyond repair. George had seen his share of mishaps in competition, broken bones was one of the simpler injuries he’s had to deal with.

“I’m fine George,” he said numbly, “no… I’m not fine. I’m… well I’m not fine. George, the dojo is yours. I need to go.”

“Mine? Go? Cam where are you going?  We have classes, I may own half of this place but I can’t teach them only you can. This thing on the news it’s only going to bring even more people in the doors who want to learn to defend themselves in an emergency.”

“I can’t teach them to do that,” Cam said with a sigh, “they can’t protect themselves. They need people who can.”

“And people will, you saw the list of heroes and corpies who showed up at that small town. Remember how many went to Manhattan for 9/11?”

“I remember. I still have to go.”

“Cam, let’s sit down and talk about this, I’ll pull out a bottle of your favorite scotch. Plenty of people have a loss of faith when a tragedy like this happens. I’ll help you get through it.”

“I know you would help if you could George, you’re a true friend. A better friend than I’ve been to you, a better friend than I deserve. But, no George, I haven’t lost faith from this crisis. I lost it a long time ago. I think it’s time I find it again.” He walked past George, ignoring his protests, and out of the room wondering how he was going to cover three hundred miles before dawn.

A Calculated Response: Chapter 3

Chapter 3:

Far From Noble

 

“It has been forty-eight hours from the best estimate of the initial attack on Meredith Falls,” the haggard looking reporter addressed the camera. “At this time, we not only are confident it was an attack but one group has now claimed credit for it. We bring to you, our viewers, this video sent simultaneously to every media outlet in the United States. This tape, which runs for over an hour in its entirety, is being broadcast unedited. This decision was made to reveal the true nature of the terrorist threat our country now faces.  Due to the graphic nature of some of its parts, viewers may want to be sure children cannot see these images. We will delay for sixty seconds so our viewers can prepare.”

“While waiting, we will recap, not the events of the last two days but the reported totals of dead and injured. Of the town populace of Meredith Falls, we still cannot say for certain the number of casualties but it is estimated to be about twelve thousand. Two hundred and thirty two survivors have been rescued. Of those only one appears to be in relatively good condition. Another one hundred and forty three are suffering from a severe induced form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Physicians and healers have released a statement that they do not expect them to recover their sanity. The remaining eighty eight have undergone some previously undetermined process, which will be explained by the tape you are about to view. These victims of the attack on Meredith Falls have been deformed beyond recognition. At times the deformities are to the point where they no longer appear human.”

The anchorman paused to let the sheer magnitude of death be absorbed by his viewing audience before continuing. “Of the heroes and other super powered rescuers, twenty six are dead, not including the initial four fatalities. This includes five heroes, six members of various PEERS organizations, two members of HOPE, four members of Force Ops, and nine volunteer supers not associated with any group.” Again he paused and took a deep breath, this time seeming to do so in order to steel himself to continue. “In addition, sixteen were maimed beyond the ability to heal, fifty seven were seriously injured but able to be healed, and seventeen suffered severe psychological trauma but did not have irreversible damage. This represents one of the deadliest attacks on a civilian target within the United States and one of the deadliest attacks on supers or, as you will now see, by supers.”

His image faded from the screen to be replaced by a countdown. His voice continued and was echoed by text rolling across the bottom of the screen. “Please stay tuned for the unedited version of the video claiming responsibility for the horrifying terror attack on Meredith Falls. Again we remind you of the graphic, violent, and disturbing nature of this video. Viewer discretion is advised.”

3…

2…

1…

The screen went black momentarily to be replaced by an image of five men and four women standing tall against a neutral background. They appear enveloped in shadows though some of their features can almost be distinguished. The front most man steps forward and out of the shadow. He has handsome, aquiline features but little else to distinguish him from anyone you might see on the street. He dressed conservatively, in a turtleneck, slacks, and a sport coat, for what was to become one of the most played videos on YouTube ever.

He started to speak in a clear, unaccented baritone. “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”  He took a dramatic pause before continuing. “These words were spoken by William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of England in 1783.  Our country was barely born and already such truths were recognized by those outside it, those whom we fought to be free of less than a decade before.  Those words were true then, those words are true now.”

He paused again and looked from side to side at the eight others on screen slightly behind him. “It may seem that we, by our actions, are counter to our very creed.  Know that we do not seek to become tyrants and we refuse to be slaves. America has denied improving the welfare of its people and the people of the world as a whole in the name of ‘Necessity’.”

“What we do is beyond inhuman, we have become monsters, we acknowledge that and still we remain committed to moving forward. America must realize that its actions do not protect its people but rather renders them weak and vulnerable. To stop us, it must come forth, it must face the truth, and it must grow. The leaders of this nation can no longer claim to be shepherding its growth or to be representing their people.” He paused again and almost looked pleased as he said the next sentence. “You will bear witness to the horrors we must inflict upon the body of this nation in order to once again bring forth the spirit that created this union and made it great.”

“The founding fathers of these United States of America recognized that democracy was far from noble.  Many felt it to be an accursed thing and they tried in vain to place checks and balances on the government they spent their blood to form.” He gestured to each side of him, indicating the eight others in shadow. “Together we are ‘Far From Noble’. We are the check on the despotism of necessity that America is being strangled by.”

“If only this single act of horror was all that needed to be perpetrated in order to teach those in power that they cannot sit above in their lofty perch and look down upon the people from their privileged vantage.” He shook his head slowly from side to side. “We weep for you America and we weep for our victims for they are sacrifices, often innocent sacrifices, to advance our cause and though you may not believe it, your cause. Each of them is a tear in our very souls. We are monsters, we are damned, and we have no hope to live in the better future which we strive to bring forth. We expect that the hounds of those in power will sniff out our trail and attempt, in their righteous fury, to bring us to justice.” He almost spat out the last word. “Know only that we go willingly, possibly to our doom, certainly to our damnation, having given up everything in order to advance America and all of mankind. At one time America led the world in creativity, in technology and in progress. Now, it hides in obfuscation, it disguises what it truly is, and it lessens itself in the world. We will return America to its pathway of greatness or we will see it burn to make way for its successor.”

The shot of the speaker and the eight shadowy figures faded away, his even voice continuing to speak as a new image appeared in their place.  The scene revealed was of a scarlet tear in space, a jagged circle sitting in the middle of a paved road with no other details seen around it. It was as if someone had dug a hole through the fabric of the air into a place lit by red neon. “Now, you must actually see the cruel, but necessary, acts we have perpetrated on the people of Meredith Falls and their would be rescuers.” He looked pleadingly at the camera as his image, and those of his companions, began to fade. “Weep for them, for they did nothing to deserve this. We do this for all of you, including those who were among the first sacrificed for the greater good.” His voice ceased and the scene played on with no further audio.

Through the tunnel on the screen emerged eight people, one of whom, standing head and shoulders above the rest, was dragging a large coffin-like object behind him. Once all of them exited the tunnel and stood on the roadway he turned and lifted it easily, placing it on his massive shoulder. The group immediately split up into four sets of two. The image followed the now familiar speaker wearing his sport coat, and another man all in leather and chains with a red leather coat flaring out from him as he walked. The two men moved onward in eerie silence with no sound recorded to mark their passage.

They approached a car dealership and the man in leathers gestured ahead of himself repeatedly, as if grabbing and twisting something which wasn’t actually there. With each gesture, a pulse of light appeared near bystanders who then came into focus on screen, their mouths gaped open as they stared in wide eyed horror, silently screaming before falling backward knocked over by some unseen force. Once down on the ground they began to thrash, as their skin began to tear open in jagged wounds. It was if they were being raked and bitten by some immense invisible animal. Whatever caused the damage was nowhere to be seen. Each one in turn ceased their silent thrashing and lay still, blood pouring forth from wounds torn deeply into their flesh until clearly their hearts stopped beating and the spray of bright crimson blood ended.

The video continued the images jumped from scene to scene and pair to pair. Different perspectives were shown across the entire town; the whole of the sequence creating a gruesome montage of devastation.

Those approached by the man in the sport would proceed to grab the side of their heads silently screaming before running away from him as fast as they could with no regard for anything else happening around them. Other times his victims proceeded to bang their heads into walls or slam them in doors till they fell to the ground bleeding or worse.

Each pair left a trail of destruction in its wake. The largest of them walked unceasingly toward the town square carrying the coffin the entire way. Any unfortunate enough to get in his way were literally smashed to pulp by his free fist; bloodied remnants were strewn across the pavement. When a car or a building was in his way, he simply moved through it, silently leaving rubble and smoking debris as a testament to the path he took. Despite the sheer devastation caused by his actions, the coffin never so much as slipped from its perch on his shoulder.

The man who was with him didn’t directly engage anyone, instead he simply walked behind the behemoth with the metal coffin and did his best to avoid the inevitable shrapnel that flew his way on occasion. His face was never clearly seen, he wore military style cargo pants and a hooded jacket with dark glasses over his eyes. Only once did anyone get close to him.  A man with a baseball bat held high to strike darted out of the door of a sporting goods store after the monstrous coffin bearer passed. He got within five feet of the hooded man before he suddenly stopped in his tracks as if petrified. His prior motion still carried his stiffened body forward as he slowly pitched forward falling to the ground as if he were a tipped over statue. When his body hit the ground it shattered into a thousand pieces. Shards of this poor unfortunate person then became flesh once more leaving the ground littered with blood and chunks of what looked like uncooked meat.

The next pair included a man and woman. He was wearing a long coat with many pockets and carried large satchels slung over each shoulder. She wore what looked like an isolation suit complete with a full enclosed breathing unit. The man never went near anyone, he simply kept pulling what looked like crystal spheres out of the satchels and tossed them here and there as they walked. She approached everyone she saw. Each person she approached fell to the ground dead as soon as she came close. No two seemed to die in exactly the same manner; some had seizures, some bled from their eyes, some began to vomit until they collapsed, and still others had their skin peeling away within seconds before they too fell over, dead before they hit the ground.

As horrifying as she was, the next pair was perhaps the worst of the group. Each of the other pairs seemed to kill almost in passing. While people in their way died horrible deaths, the killing seemed almost incidental. They didn’t go out of their way to chase people down nor enter buildings to seek them out. With the last pair that wasn’t the case. This pair had two women, at least two figures that both bore a resemblance to women. The first wore leathers and chains similar to the man in the red coat. Her wild hair accentuated the multiple piercings in her ears, brow, nose, and lip. She wore extreme makeup emphasizing her eyes and sinking her cheeks. She looked like a refugee from a thrash metal concert. As frightening a visage as she presented, her companion would have won a special effects Oscar if she appeared in a horror movie.

It was only in overall form could you tell it was female. Her face was crisscrossed by bleeding furrows and scars, her mouth was pulled back in a rictus grin as if someone took a knife to the angle where the two lips met and cut upwards through her cheeks pinning the flesh back and letting the oozing blood begin to dry.  The flesh of her lower lip sagged away from her teeth exposing them and the fact that they were all filed to points where they weren’t broken off stumps. Her hands ended in hook like fingers but the flesh dripped away from the bones of the fingers which were again filed into points. Her mangled, distorted body was covered in shredded clothes. She looked like a zombie out to find brains to consume.

The two women purposely sought out crowds, searching buildings to torture people who were hiding, trying to find shelter from the madness occurring around them. Where they found them, unspeakable things occurred.

Groups approached by the pierced woman began to turn on one another and fight each other. This was not a simple fist fight or even a riot. Each and every person she approached attacked others around them with a viciousness that could never be expected from simple rural townsfolk. It was never enough when one defeated their opponents. They kicked them while they were down, they beat them senseless, they tore their flesh until they were covered in the blood of their victims. Only when their victim was finally still and the blood no longer surged from their wounds did they move on aimlessly, in search of more people to fight and kill.

The victims of the zombie like woman, they were the ones to be pitied the most. For of all the victims in Meredith Falls, they were among the few who did not find the peace of death.

The townsfolk she approached would see her and begin to run, like some scene from the latest Hollywood zombie thriller. No sooner had they turned to flee from her then they would find themselves unable to run away as their legs began to distort and often fuse into a single unmoving stump on which their torso perched. When they could no longer escape, she would slowly shamble toward them, close the distance, and ultimately lay her bloody claws upon them to begin a macabre sculpting of their face and body. What remained when she had done her bloody work was alive, but no longer recognizable as human.

In the midst of her ghoulish handiwork, part of her head suddenly exploded, the left side tearing away as her body was thrown backward from her victim. The angle of the image shifted and a man with a gun stalked toward her. Perhaps it was a lucky shot, perhaps he believed the tales that the only way to stop a zombie was to shoot it in the head. Whatever the case it did not stop her. When she didn’t fall he continued to shoot, the sound of the shots was never heard though her body jerked with each bullet he planted in her. It appeared as if he planted an entire clip in her, despite this she never fell. He stopped advancing toward her and put a new clip in the gun. Before he could take aim to fire again, she suddenly raised her head to look at him.

The left eye and orbit were missing and her brain was exposed. The jaw remained attached at the right side but hung by shreds of skin at the left. Three large holes were visible in her torso and abdomen, her internal organs were exposed and blood and gore were dripping from what should have been deadly wounds. She stared at her attacker and smiled a distorted smile, mouth half gone, the smile all the more disturbing for it. As she glared at him with her one eye, his body began to twist. His arm bent at an unnatural angle bringing the gun up to his own face. His lips began to quiver and stretch as they grew over the muzzle of the gun. The fingers of the hand holding the gun merged together and grew over the handle, all except the trigger finger which remained alone, in place behind the guard. His legs melted away leaving him unable to walk, let alone run. His other hand and arm was untouched as he pulled at the hand holding the gun now grafted into his mouth. The look of horror on his face disappeared as the flesh over his eyes and the rest of his face melted into smoothness except for two small holes where his nostrils were still allowing him to breathe. His scream was still visible in the writhing of the muscles under the unblemished skin. Only then did she turn and shamble away, leaving him there blind and with the gun only useful if he chose to end his own suffering.  

Onward she went, taking her wandering path through the town and leaving the twisted bodies of the people of Meredith Falls behind her. When she came across more than one person together the results were even more disturbing. As she approached groups the flesh of each individual would dissolve and entwine with their neighbors. Two or even three people at a time were merged freakishly into a single being like some bizarre Siamese twin. As the scene played out, the particular pairings she created grew increasingly distressing. For some time she followed her partner and when two people would begin to fight she would merge their flesh so a single creature would tear itself to shreds, its component parts locked in battle. As she progressed away from the senseless combat her companion evoked, she merged mothers and their children, husbands and their wives, people and their pets.

Many of her victims were left trapped inside buildings. As she left each of the businesses and residences she had entered, the walls and doors would sag behind her, melting or decaying just as the bodies of her prey. She left them confined, twisted, awaiting what was to come trapped within their warped selves as much as within the collapsed buildings.

Each of the members of ‘Far From Noble’ left a bloody trail behind them. Each one of them left utter devastation in their path. One by one each member joined their large companion in the town square surrounding the coffin he had carried there.

It was there outside the town hall, beside a fountain with a statue of a man on horseback, the hulking brute had finally put the coffin down on the ground once more. At this point the sound suddenly returned and the man in the sport coat addressed the camera once more. “Now you have borne witness to our capabilities and depths to which we will go for our cause. We will continue to carry out our mission until America changes its ways. We make no specific demands, your leaders know why we are doing this and they know what they must do to stop us. They can throw away lives and property in some vain hope that they can find us and defeat us or they can capitulate. What we have done so far is but the smallest part of what is to come. Though our methods may not be just, our cause is. Many will flock to our banner and call. Some because they believe in it, some because they have other grievances with the government, and still others because in their hearts they hold evil and villainy. Well we say to you the people we wish to help, any who act for our cause we will support. We will take evil and turn it into our weapon, a weapon to be used in our mission.”

Behind him the largest member of their group had stood the coffin upright. It was now obvious the side facing the camera was a door that hinged so it could swing open toward the view being shown. “Believe what you will. We are not villains, we seek no personal profit here, we seek only the betterment of our society. Many of you will not believe us. There will be outrage and the claxon call will be sounded. Our heads will be sought and we will be labeled evil.” He paused once more.

“Is evil done in the name of good truly evil, perhaps, perhaps not? History will label us as villains or heroes but who writes that history is yet to be determined. In one future we are terrorists and our names when spoken are spoken with contempt. In another brighter future we are freedom fighters and our names are celebrated and spoken with reverence.”

He paused momentarily and the others gathered around him. “We still have two things left to show you, two things left to prove how determined we are and how dangerous we can be. We beg of you, let this be enough bloodshed, let this be enough torture. Let us disappear and let the people grow again in the freedom they need as if it were their sustenance. Weep for our souls as you weep for these people. The survivors shall envy the dead and that is how you will know what truly must be feared.”

Behind the coffin a jagged red circle appeared from nothing. One by one each of the men and women of ‘Far From Noble’ entered the crimson tunnel until only one was left. Standing next to the coffin was the man in the hoodie, the one who avoided the fighting and simply followed along. He examined the coffin and then did something to the side of it, his body blocking the view and obscuring exactly what he did. He too entered the tear in space which closed behind him. For ten seconds nothing happened and then the coffin lid began to swing open, the screen flooded with light and then nothing.

When the image resumed most of the town was no longer there. The view was above a great crater. Along the edge, ruined buildings were sliding into its maw. Smoke and flames were everywhere. Once more sound resumed but it wasn’t anything from the ruins shown on screen, instead it was the easily recognized voice of the spokesman for ‘Far From Noble’. “One last thing you must all bear witness to and that is what will happen to those who seek to undo our works or seek to find us and bring us to what you would call justice.”

The image did not change but the quality of light did, after a few seconds it became obvious that the speed of the recording was moving rapidly, hours passing by in seconds. The smoke moving across the screen reflected the passage of time.

The scene changed, the viewpoint moved to the edge of the town once more. Suddenly a sphere of energy came hurtling into view from the sky. It slowed, hovered above the ground and finally came to a stop.  When it touched down it faded and five men came into view. By this time everyone could recognize the first five heroes who entered Meredith Falls. Tramp was the leader of the group ironically known as Response. Unlike most hero teams they had no city they called their home, Hard Drive’s power let them travel anywhere in the country fast enough that they didn’t need one. When the call came in that Meredith Falls had gone dark and that initial rescue crews had disappeared they were first on scene.

Unlike the earlier video set in Meredith Falls, these images were accompanied by sound. “We’ll split into two groups,” Tramp’s deep voice ordered, “Maximum and I will take Boom Box with us.” He looked over at the younger man dressed like a hipster out to go clubbing, “sorry Boomer you’re still an intern for the next ten months, that means you get maximum supervision in this setting.” He looked over at the strongman of the group and snickered, “no pun intended.”

“Sure it wasn’t boss,” added the strongman, “just like the three hundred or so other times no pun was intended.”

“Hard Drive, you take Faraday and start from the other side of the town. We work our way to the center.”

“You got it,” replied Hard Drive. Tramp still hated looking directly at him, why he chose to make his costume reflective was something he would never understand. Faraday walked over and stood next to Hard Drive, the spray of lightning bolts across his costume were glowing slightly as he ran a tiny current through the EL wire running through it. It reflected off Hard Drive’s costume and Tramp just shook his head at them.

He squinted and raised a hand as if to shield his vision from too much glare. “You all hurt my eyes. A bunch of primping peacocks on this team, I tell you.”

“Just because you have no style boss,” Faraday replied. “I mean really that costume makes you look like something out of a fantasy role playing game.” Tramp looked down at himself. He wore a simple costume with a deep set hooded cowl to hide his face, a wide leather belt held compartments with gadgets, cuffs, and first aid gear in them, his boots were rugged but came to mid-thigh.

“I guess you’re right,” he laughed, “all I need is a sword.” Tramp stopped a moment as if he realized something. “Enough banter guys. I’m sure we are all nervous, we have no idea what happened here or what happened to the crews of rescue workers who went in. It doesn’t matter, we can handle it, we’ve handled worse before.”

A chorus of agreement came from the other four.

“Dispatch, this is Tramp, we are ready to enter Meredith Falls.”

There was no reply.

“Dispatch?” He looked surprised. He had lost his earpiece before, he’d had it damaged to the point it didn’t function, but never before had it simply not worked. “Can any of you raise Dispatch?”

Each of them tried in turn, and each reported that she didn’t reply.

“OK everyone the rules just changed,” Tramp pulled two guns from a hidden holsters at the small of his back. “Be ready for anything at any time. I’ve never been cut off from Dispatch like this which means something new is in play here. Be careful and be ready to retreat, information is critical at this point. If you get important intelligence and aren’t sure you can get it out if you keep fighting then run.” He paused and looked at each hero in turn, “Everyone got that?”

A series of affirmative replies told him all he needed to know.

“OK then move out, and remember we can’t raise Dispatch and we can’t call each other. You are out of touch from this point on. If all goes well, rendezvous here in one hour and then we will reassess the situation.”

Hard Drive and Faraday nodded agreement and then stepped off to the side. Suddenly they were enveloped in the same sphere of energy the group arrived within which ascended into the sky almost as soon as it formed. The remaining three heroes began to walk off down the torn up street.

“It’s kinda eerie,” said Maximum, “you would think there would be some survivors. The report we got from Dispatch said no poisons, no radioactivity, and no other residual energy detected except the fires.”

“Right,” replied Tramp, “and that makes me more nervous. You notice there is absolutely no sign of the rescue workers who got here before us? Nothing. No trucks, no tracks, no people.”

“Yeah, like I said eerie. Are you sensing anything kid? Those ears of yours have found people even under tons of rubble.”

Boom Box looked up at Maximum, a look of frustration on his face. “First of all old man, I’ve told you before it’s not my ears, it’s another sense altogether. Just because it detects sound doesn’t make it hearing. And second of all, yeah, there’s something out there, people I would guess but not a ton of them. I think we’ll find them trapped in some of the buildings.” He concentrated and then shook his head. “I’m not sensing the kind of noise I would normally associate with trapped people. Generally I’m just detecting movement of some kind but not digging, and not anything I can put my finger on. Others are more what I would expect, yelling, screaming, crying, but there’s no conversation, just a lot of muttering to themselves as far as I can tell, and again no digging themselves out.” He looked at Maximum again, “I’ll take it a notch past eerie to downright weird.” He stopped as he said it, looked apologetic, and said, “Max, I’m sorry for snapping. I’ve never dealt with anything like this. I’m on edge.”

“We all are kid. None of us have seen anything quite like this before. So no worries, huh?” He grinned and evil grin, “of course, next time you snap at me like that, I might just snap your arm. You know a snap for a snap.”

Tramp chuckled at Maximum’s comment and then said, “well let’s go figure out what’s behind the weird,” he motioned to Boom Box to lead the way as he spoke.

“The largest group is over this way, can’t really tell how many are moving around down there.” He led the way to a collapsed building, rubble sprayed out from what was left of the building. It was if the building collapsed in on itself and then was pushed away, outward from the center of town. It looked like it might have been a small office building or apartment house when it was intact.

Tramp took the lead once Boom Box pointed out the building where the people were trapped. He examined each side of the pile of stone and metal which was once a building. “Over here I think, looks like the easiest way to a stairwell is under this pile,” he said pointing to a slightly sagged in area. He looked up at Maximum and said “your turn big guy.”

Maximum looked at it, “I suggest you all stand back, these aren’t large intact pieces. I’m going to be digging through that and throwing all sorts of loose rubble to get in there. It’s going to take a while. Just keep an eye out, like Boomy said, this place feels downright weird.” Giving his warning he began to shift large pieces of rubble and, as he said, throwing them into the distance. After a few minutes of work, which sped up on screen, he stopped and the video slowed to real time again. “What in the world is this?”

He stood up holding what looked to be a crystal sphere. It was about the size of a baseball though in Maximum’s hand it looked more like a golf ball.  As he held it out to show the others it pulsed with a greenish light before shattering in his hand. Maximum staggered, then he stood up straight, his eyes darting from side to side. He started to look around, moving his head as if listening to something coming first from one place than another. His expression was confused, and then ran the gamut from profound sadness to anger to raw fury. His face finally settled on a sullen anger, looking almost like a child who didn’t get his way. His fists were clenched, the sound of his knuckles cracking could be clearly heard.

Tramp approached him warily, a look of concern evident on his face, “Max, are you OK? What was that?”

But without giving an answer Maximum suddenly shot his hand out grabbing and encircling Tramp’s head and squeezed. Tramp didn’t even have time to scream let alone react, blood and brain matter shot out from between Maximum’s fingers as Tramp’s body fell to the ground only to be trod on by Maximum as he advanced on Boom Box.

Boom Box may have been an intern but his reactions were instant. He didn’t pause in shock, or take time to note the passing of a hero; his mentor dying at his friend’s hands. No without hesitation he moved and acted. He back pedaled quickly away from Maximum and shouted, “Faraday, Hard Drive, get over here, Tramp is dead and Maximum did it, he’s gone insane.” The speakers on televisions around the country nearly blew out trying to reproduce the call for help amplified to hundreds of decibels by Boom Box’s power.

Maximum charged forward reaching for Boom Box when he was suddenly knocked back as a focused sonic boom hit him square in the chest. He shook it off quickly and charged again only to be hit by another sonic boom. This time he didn’t move back as far, he grew instantly stronger to resist it more. Boom Box reached out and again Maximum flew backward the sound of the sonic boom even louder if that were possible. Dust clouded the image as Maximum got up once more and stalked toward the younger here. “Faraday, Hard Drive, now would be a good time,” echoed loudly from Boom Box. Maximum kept approaching.

This time Boom Box hit him with rapid fire sonic booms, one after the other but each knocked him back less, as Maximum grew in strength to resist the force each time. The dust in the air started to vibrate as Boom Box raised the power level. He was obviously one of the strongest sound manipulators in action today and the image on the screen blurred, disrupted by the vibration he was causing. Maximum kept approaching, his walk slowed by the sheer force of sound, as if he were trapped in molasses. The image became uninterpretable, a shimmer of vibration mixed with dust thrown into the air. The noise built to a crescendo then suddenly was gone. When the dust settled Boom Box was held aloft in Maximum’s outstretched hand which had crushed the right side of the young hero’s entire chest. Blood welled up from his mouth, he tried to say something, his power amplifying the sound of his ragged breaths but still not making it understandable.

Maximum stood there holding Boom Box, the slowly fading bursts of sound still knocking into him. He didn’t seem to notice he had him in his grip. His voice was just barely heard over the waning sonic attacks. “No, I don’t want to do that… But, but I’m not supposed to do things like that… Why would I want to hurt people?” Some comments were clear, others mumbled. He stood there arguing with himself until he suddenly turned reach down and grabbed Tramp in his other hand and dragged the two heroes, dying and dead, over to the pile of rubble he had been digging in a few minutes before. Here he pulled out fragments of girder and rebar forming a lattice of spikes. He dropped Boom Box and stuck the body of Tramp onto these spikes posing it in a rough metal frame as if on display. He stood there muttering under his breath frequently, the words no longer intelligible, and then he grabbed Boom Box again. Boom Box could barely scream as each limb in turn was pierced through by jagged metal shards, each time it happened he through another attack against Maximum, the rubble shaking around them, the dust clouding and fuzzing out the image of the slow torture he was going through. Finally as Maximum pierce him through his crushed right shoulder, he raised his head again and you could hear one last boom as he threw yet another attack at Maximum whose head barely moved back as it was struck. Defiant to the end, he coughed up one last huge gout of blood and stopped breathing.

After a few moments the picture was disturbed again as Hard Drive’s energy bubble returned, clearing a pathway through the miasma of the smoke and dust. It landed not far from Maximum but when it dissipated Hard Drive almost fell to the ground coming out of it. His costume was singed, it was no longer reflective, instead being laced with a pattern that looked like the material had cracked. His right sleeve of his costume was completely torn off and the bare arm it should have covered looked as if the bones were no longer there. The skin of the arm bubbled like acid was poured over it and torn like it was dragged through glass. His face was exposed, his visor was askew and covered in soot. He looked around disoriented and then seemed to find focus as he saw the hulking body of Maximum standing at the foot of a large pile of rubble. He rubbed his left hand across his eyes to clear his vision and then limped slowly toward Maximum.

“Max, thank god I found you. I… We need your help, all of your help,” Hard Drive said with desperation. “Faraday and I were searching across the crater and we found a survivor. He was mad, absolutely insane, constantly banging his head into the walls or hitting himself with a fragment of a brick.” He stopped and took some deep breaths. Maximum just stood there facing away from Hard Drive, his body blocking the view of the two dead heroes.

“Anyhow we stopped him from injuring himself further. He was ragged, he looked like he dug himself out from a pile of rubble. His fingers were raw and bloody, there were bits of earth embedded under what was left of his nails. We tried to ask what happened, to find out if there were any other survivors. But he only ran off gibbering absolute nonsense.” He took a shuddering breath before continuing. “We followed him of course. We caught up to him just down the street, he stopped and just stood there pointing at a round crystal sitting perched on a fire hydrant that was half out of the ground.” He took another shuddering breath, shaking his head in self-recrimination. “We should have stopped him, we should have realized something wasn’t right, that he wasn’t just a traumatized survivor. The madman… he walked up to it and picked it up. He held it almost reverently and then reached out for us to take it. Faraday went forward to examine it when the thing suddenly flashed a blue light and shattered.”

Hard Drive looked disoriented, almost panicked. He stood there a moment as if waiting for Maximum to respond, or even to turn around. When neither was forthcoming he started talking again a slight tremor notable in his voice. “The madman, he just liquefied, turned into soup in front of us. Faraday he… he changed, his legs and arms they deformed, his neck twisted, his whole body… it was like he was clay and someone started reshaping him.” He stopped for a second again and looked down at his arm. “I caught the edge of whatever it was and my arm it just turned to jelly. But Faraday, he was screaming in pain and suddenly he turned into his electrical form and surged at me. I barely got a shield up and only caught the edge of it but then I came here I could hear enough to know you guys were fighting. Boomy makes it pretty obvious. We need to grab him and Tramp and go help Faraday and then find a healer.” He looked at Max expectantly, waiting anxiously for him to turn and help. This experienced hero was so shaken by the events he had been through that he didn’t even realize that again something wasn’t right. After a moment he started again, this time more vehemently, “Max we need to get the others now! We have to find Faraday! We need to get in touch with Dispatch! Max!”

Maximum still didn’t move, his massive shoulders rocking up and down with his breaths were the only sign he was even alive. Hard Drive tried to get his attention once more, he came closer. “Max, did you hear me or did you go deaf from the sonic booms again?” He reached out to shake his shoulder when Maximum finally turned. Hard Drive’s face took on a look of absolute horror and the camera angle swung around to show the bodies now visible to him passed Maximum’s body.

“Max… what happened… what…” those were Hard Drive’s last words as Maximum reached out to grab him.

It wasn’t like he grabbed him to smash him, he embraced him, he enveloped the smaller man in what appeared to be a hug. He just stood there, holding him, the camera focused down on Hard Drive’s face, “Max,” he said softly, confusion clear in his voice, “Max it will be OK, just tell me what happened.”

“I… he…” Maximum started but then stopped his gaze darting around. “No, I don’t want to, he’s my friend.”

“Max?”

“No, I said no I won’t.”

“Max?” Hard Drive said with more urgency.

“No! No! No! No! No!”

Hard Drive’s body shook in Maximum’s grasp as the larger hero looked like he was throwing a tantrum. “Max put me down now.” But Maximum kept shaking and yelling ‘No!’ at the top of his lungs, over and over again. “Max, please! You’re hurting me.”

Max looked concerned, “See! See what you’re making me do? I don’t want to hurt him! I don’t want to hurt anyone!”

“I don’t want you to hurt me either Max, just put me down and we’ll figure this all out.”

“I… I can’t… I’m sorry but…” the sound of bones splintering came across clearly. Like a puppy that bites when trying to play Maximum squeezed just too hard for him and broke the body of Hard Drive, crushing it against his own indestructible body. His eyes bulged and blood trickled from him mouth as his body convulsed in Maximum’s arms and then was still. The once great hero began to weep.

The camera angle widened and panned out, as if now viewing the town from a great distance. It was clear that the fires raged on. Once more the speed of the video increased and the light from above slowly began to dim.

As this was happening, the voice of the spokesman was heard once more. “None can stand before us, to do so is only folly, it will only make things worse in the end. You may think that there are many heroes in this land, many who would stand before us and hold the line, defend the nation, protect its people. They are like wheat before a scythe to us. Those who would defend that which has no moral defense will find themselves cut down. They will be branded as dupes of the old order in the world which is to come.”

On screen the light from above continued to dim in accelerated time when suddenly the dancing flames all disappeared and the smoke cleared away. Gray twilight was left and once more the scene began to change. The images flowed to various groups of heroes entering the ruins. Tantamount’s battles with Faraday and Maximum played out for all to see as did Braindrain’s fight against the image of Far From Noble’s spokesman. Rasa’s death was shown, not the simple bad luck of a falling wall but the explosion of a crystal causing the rubble to bury him.

The image accelerated again, the screen going black as night fell and then light again as the morning came and the sun rose. It slowed to normal pace focused on a large temporary structure which appeared to be outside the town. The image moved through the door of the structure and into a large room filled with communications equipment, several members of Force Ops in their black uniforms, and the Architect surrounded by several heroes and leaders of PEERs groups.

“Now that Maximum and the others have been found, there has been no further evidence of current super activity?” asked the Architect. “Is that right?”

“No, nothing else happened,” replied Tantamount, “Rasa’s death appears to be pure bad luck, but…” he paused and added hesitantly, “something doesn’t seem right.”

“I agree with you there but if we are going to have any hope of finding and helping survivors we need to go in now, in full force. You only had two advanced minds among the heroes who went in yesterday to scan for the living and Braindrain… well let’s hope.”

“Pax says she’s gone,” Tantamount shook his head sadly, “I don’t think there is much to hope for.”

“We can hope to find some survivors. There are six additional telepaths among the non-certified supers and three with enhanced senses. If we are going to find survivors short of digging up the entire area we all need to go in.”

“Alright,” said Tantamount holding his hands up in front of his chest indicating surrender, “we all go in.” Everyone in the room waited for the ‘but’. “But, all non-certified supers are to be accompanied by a certified hero. I’ll exclude Force Ops from that requirement but that’s as far as I’ll go. That means each PEERS team can enter with their supervising hero. For HOPE I want at least one certified hero for every four members that enter. For the unaffiliated supers I want no more than two with each certified hero. That means everyone gets to go however there are no heroes who aren’t accompanying others.” He looked around at each person present. “Is that completely clear and understood?” His tone emphasized the gravity of the situation.

There were nods of agreement around the room as well as a few grunts indicating it was.

“Dispatch, this is Tantamount, please log and confirm the decision to allow non-certified supers on-site. In addition, please log the assent of the leaders present to the requirements I have put in place. Full date and time stamp as well as record of who was present.” Everyone looked at him surprised to see him make this request. “I’ve been through DVA reviews before,” he said, then his lips grew into a tight line as he shook his head like he was trying to hold back a comment. “This is going to eventually be one hell of a review. I’m not leaving anything undocumented.

Dispatch’s voice came over a speaker set up on the table so everyone could here. “I have logged the choice and confirm your authority to enact it as mission lead for this operation. Good luck everyone.”

“OK,” added Tantamount, “if anyone who wants to go in isn’t willing to follow the restrictions put them in a transport and get them the hell out of here.”

The group of them left the command building and stood before over three hundred supers and a thousand rescue workers including firemen, policemen, National Guard, medical personnel, and others. So many who came out and put their lives on the line to try and save others.

He stood on a small platform set up to raise him about two feet and allow him to more easily address the crowd. Under his breath his said “Dispatch, begin recording.” Then and only then, he nodded at Doppler, a sonic hero not nearly as powerful as Boom Box, but apparently able to amplify Tantamount’s voice. “Once again I want to thank everyone who came out to help with this tragic attack on Meredith Falls. That includes everyone here today, not just the supers. Those of you who came out and put your lives on the line without the benefits of special abilities are all true heroes.” He stopped as the supers all turned to face the gathered rescue workers and began to clap.

Once the applause died down, he started to speak again. “At this time the investigation of the area has not revealed any active super activity though clearly there was super involvement in the destruction here.” He paused to let that sink in, the first confirmation of the rumors that were flying through the camp. “We have decided that the entire group of supers here will be entering the town in order to perform search and rescue. The non-enhanced rescue workers will stand ready and if all goes well we expect to call you in by noon.” There were murmurs from the crowd of ordinary rescue workers. “PEERS groups will go with your supervising heroes. HOPE will be split into groups of four and each group will be accompanied by a certified hero. Force Ops, you may enter unsupervised based on your own command structure.”

“What about us volunteers?” came a voice from the crowd of supers.

“Non-certified, non-affiliated supers,” he continued, “will be allowed to accompany us into the town in pairs, each pair under the guidance of a certified here.” Again this triggered a low murmur, both from the volunteer supers and the non-enhanced volunteers. “These are the rules people; they are according to protocols written for situations just like… well no, not just like this, but situations which could include this. We have to get in there if there is going to be any chance of saving anyone. But, we aren’t going to take chances with unknown supers.” His face took on a stern, unyielding, expression. “This is the way it’s going to be, if any of you can’t work under these rules… well we will be sorry to see you go, but go you must.”

He scanned the crowd, though there were murmured comments, too low for anyone to make out, no one left.

“Alright then, we will be assigning teams to maximize ability to find and rescue survivors as well as provide protection and support. We have a total of seven telepaths and three supers with enhanced senses to try and find survivors. We will be splitting all of you up into different groups to maximize coverage of the town. Are there any others with powers that will aid in the location of survivors that we aren’t aware of?”

There was a slight shift in the crowd as a woman’s arm shot up about one third of the way back towards the middle. The nails on the hand were long and painted violet, there were numerous bracelets and bangles encircling the wrist. The crowd of supers parted around her to reveal a short woman dressed in skirts and a flowing blouse over which a flak jacket was worn. She had on matching violet eye shadow and lipstick, despite being in a disaster area. She started to walk toward Tantamount eventually coming to a stop at the base of the stage

“Your name?” asked Tantamount.

“Mariana Prentice,” she replied with a voice clearly practiced at sounding ‘haunted’.

His brow furrowed as if he were trying to remember who she was, “I’m sorry, so many here, what is your power?”

“I’m a psychic.”

“Advanced mind?”

“No, I’m a psychic.”

“Umm, that designation usually falls under the category of advanced mind.”

“Yes, yes,” she replied rolling her eyes upward. “Name, number, and categorize your… super powers,” she said the last almost with disdain, “however you like. I’m not a super, I’m a psychic from a long line of psychics.”

Sudden realization showed on his face, “oh, your that woman always advertising on television, solve your problems through crystal balls or tarot cards or something like that.” He rubbed his hand across his eyes while shaking his head no. “I’m sorry, screening should have been better, the volunteers we are taking are only those with demonstrated powers. What you do may play well to an audience and comfort those seeking proof that their loved ones are at rest, but you have no place here.” He turned to the side and motioned toward one of the Force Ops members who started to move up when Mariana reached out and grabbed his hand. Her eyes went wide and then she pulled him toward her, he bent over not resisting in the sudden surprise of it. She whispered something that went unheard into his ear.

“Alright then,” he said standing up and taking back his hand to wave off the Force Ops member, “you are with my group.”

“Anyone else?” He paused and looked out over the crowd. “Any questions?” He paused again and when none were forthcoming he said, “Alright then, group assignments are being given out now. Gather with your supervising hero and let’s move out.”

Again the video played through in rapid speed until almost seventy groups of supers set out into the ruins to search for survivors. The scene only slowed to show death and destruction. There were survivors found though all were either insane or twisted and deformed by the zombie woman. Alongside the survivors, they found crystal spheres. More than twenty scenes played out in clips one after the other. At last the purpose of the member of Far From Noble who harmed no one in the first part of the video was made abundantly clear. He wasn’t there for the townsfolk, he was there for the supers. Super after super fell, heroes, Force Ops, PEERS, HOPE, volunteers. One after the other they paid the price for their virtue.

In one scene, four or five groups of supers were gathered together digging out a large building. A giant of a man in a red shirt and jeans was lifting an intact piece of wall from the large pile of rubble when a crystal sphere tumbled out from beneath it glowing red and then suddenly everyone except the huge super was thrown back in an invisible explosion of force. The piece of wall he was holding shattered and became shrapnel doing nearly as much damage as the blast itself. The camera panned around the area, many were down and not moving as others staggered to their feet. The large super whose clothes were now shredded ran toward the first downed woman and then the scene changed.

The next scene showed a hero with what looked like two ordinary people in jeans wearing flak jackets, clearly some of the volunteer supers. One of them was staring at a pile of rubble throwing pieces off without touching it, the supervising hero was touching his earpiece speaking to Dispatch as a crystal sphere rolled out of the pile and began to glow a pure bright white. The two volunteers froze in place, and then fell over crumbling into pieces as they hit the ground. The hero only caught the edge of it, as the arm he held to his ear, along with the ear itself cracked and fell off his body which began to spurt blood from the stump at his shoulder.

Again the scene changed showing several supers in the black uniforms of Force Ops falling to the ground after finding a sphere which pulsed orange. Their flesh was ripped open as if by unseen beasts.

In another scene, Tantamount and his group came to an area where it looked like there were homes before the explosion. Most of the debris here was wood and brick rather than cinderblock and concrete. The psychic woman, Mariana, reached down at the edge of a pile of rubble and pulled out a child’s ragdoll which was clearly worse for the wear. One eye was missing, a leg was hanging by a shred of cloth, and the seam on the side had popped open with stuffing leaking out. She held it up in both hands and then pulled it to her chest, bending her head over it. She stood that way for a full minute before her head suddenly shot up, her eyes wide, and she began to shake.

“No! Not the baby!” were the only words she was able to get out before she collapsed to the ground, foaming at the mouth and started to seize, still clutching the doll to her breast.

Scene after scene, sphere after sphere, more explosions, more deformities, more death, more disfigurement, more and more and more, until finally it came to the end.

The video finished with an image inside a partially intact basement, the lighting was poor but clearly visible was a woman kneeling on the floor wearing the white fatigues of HOPE and holding the body of a small girl. The view was from behind her left shoulder, the child’s face was clearly seen but it was a single smooth sheet of skin with no mouth, eyes, or nose. Her hair framed the face making her look like a mannequin.

The child was obviously choking, unable to breath. The woman seemed to be trying to do something with her powers. She kept gesturing at the child with what looked like a wand or a stick. Whatever it was she was trying to accomplish didn’t seem to be working.

She screamed “help me, I need help in here, now, she’s dying and I can’t do anything. Oh god, oh god help me, someone please help me.” Again and again she tried to do something with the object in her hand, again and again she failed.  The view moved back revealing more of the room. There were two other bodies were lying on the ground, loose pools of flesh, the remains of another pair of HOPE fatigues and some sort of hero’s costume were plainly seen. Despite her screams no one came to help and as the scene played out the desperate writhing of the child stopped and it lay still in her arms.

“Noooooo…” came the wail from deep in her chest. She bent over the tiny body she held in her hands, her shoulders began to shake as wracking sobs encompassed her. Minutes went by, the scene still playing out in real time. She just sat there, sobbing, shaking uncontrollably, the pitiful body of the little girl held tight.

After five minutes of this, other people finally came into the room but it was clearly too late. A man also wearing the white fatigues of HOPE called out as he came down the nearly collapsed stairs, “Debbie… Debbie are you in here?” He saw her and turned to call back over his shoulder. “Here, she’s in here. Hurry.” He shone a light into the basement and looked around. “I… I think… what’s left of Rebuild and Elan are…” he stopped and suddenly turned away and vomited.

Hemi, another one of the heroes, came in and took the small corpse from the woman’s hands. At the same time another woman, easily recognizable as the healer Willowbark despite burns across most of her costume, came up to her. She stood her up and turned her examining her and bringing her face into view of the camera. The right side of her face looked like a hideous burn from her cheekbone to her temple. Her eye was spared to her great luck. Willowbark grabbed her and a glow enveloped the HOPE member’s head as Willowbark’s power was brought to bear. When the glow faded, the burn was still there, as red and raw as if it just happened.

The scenes played out and once more the image returned to the nine men and women standing in the shadows. The spokesman stepped forth once more and spoke the final words of warning Far From Noble would give.

“Remember what you have seen. We cannot be stopped, the damage we do cannot be undone. No one will be safe until you, the people of the United States, rise up with us, overthrow the yoke of your cruel leadership, and force them to relinquish onto this nation all that they have withheld from them. Rise up people of America, demand of your so called representatives the truth of what has been hidden and held back. Make them relinquish what they have held in secret, make your lives better, make us the leaders of the world once more.”

“Oh for the day that our monstrous acts can finally end. Until that day comes, know that like the founding fathers we too are Far From Noble, and we too will bring about great works and a lasting nation upon this earth.”

The video ended and the screen returned once more to a reporter. This time a woman’s drawn face graced the screen. It was clear that no one involved in this was getting any rest.

“I’m Ashley Glaser, in for Roger Stackhouse who…” she took a long pause, “needed to step away.”

“With the release of the video claiming responsibility for this terrorist assault in the heartland of the United States by supers, there has been a call for more extreme regulation of both supers and powereds.” She shuffled some papers in front of her and continued. “The President has declared a state of emergency and martial law in the region. He has moved National Guard as well as Army troops into the area. Six units of Army Force Ops have been deployed to the area alongside the normal troops.”

“The group calling itself, ‘Far From Noble’, has never been heard of before but appears to be made up exclusively of supers. They have made claims that their attack is due to America holding back something which would improve the lives of its people and its standing in the world community. They gave little to no details of what this was, instead calling for the people to rise up against the government so they admit the wrongdoing and release these benefits to everyone.”

“Humanity First has made a statement which simultaneously supports the opposition of the government while at the same time decrying ‘Far From Noble’ as more evidence of the danger of supers and the need to remove them from society.”

“Intermix, the political action group which calls for equality of supers, powereds, and normal humans under the law, and a removal of the restrictions governing the use of powers released their own statement which declared that ‘while this heinous act was carried out by supers, it in no way makes the case that supers are a danger above madmen with bombs.’ In fact they go on to say that ‘this shows to achieve such destruction even supers resort to explosives over their own powers.’ They seem to have completely ignored much of the evidence in the video that powers were extensively used in both the initial destruction and the aftermath.”

“Congress has been in session since the initial reports came out and reports are that they too have just finished screening the tape from Far From Noble. Discussion of the need for further restrictions on supers or further increases to Homeland Security are ongoing.”

“Stay tuned to this station for continuous coverage of the attack and the aftermath. Be sure to join us at four o’clock as we bring together a panel of political correspondents and representatives from a number of lobbying groups both pro and anti super to discuss the ramifications of Meredith Falls.”

Her image faded out as the picture changed to an aerial view of the crater and ruins at Meredith Falls. Statistics regarding the attack scrolled across the bottom of the screen. A non-stop reminder of the losses suffered.

A Calculated Response: Chapter 4

Chapter 4:

The world is changing

 

The room would be considered large by normal standards. It was however, crowded with men wedged in several sofas surrounding a ninety inch plasma screen mounted on the wall. Given how little space there was you would have expected a dozen or more people but there were in fact only six men. Five of the six were, to put it mildly, huge. The furnishings in the room were larger than normal to try and accommodate them but it only just let them sit together. The oversized sofas also served to make the sixth man look pathetically small. In addition to the people, crates and boxes were piled haphazardly around the room and the entire wall opposite the TV had a graffiti mural with the words ‘Beat Street Boyz’ in large, jagged, monochromatic letters.

The reason for the crowding was clear, the television was on and another showing of Far From Noble’s video was airing. The six were paying close attention to the added commentary from four political correspondents and military experts offering their perspective on the situation. Each one of them spoke as if they knew all the answers and each one actually had no idea of what they were talking about.

“It’s clear the President and Congress will have to act after an attack of such magnitude,” pronounced one of the experts, his face appearing in the lower right hand corner of the screen as Maximum and Boom Box’s fight played out behind him.

A second face took his place, this time a woman. “Perhaps,” she added, “but after the whole debacle looking for weapons of mass destruction after 9/11 and the time it took to hunt down Bin Laden, the American people will demand something more definitive.”

“Obviously we are heading for universal super and powered registration and service,” interrupted another man whose face appeared next to the woman’s half way through his sentence.

“The American people won’t stand for that,” she shot back, “it’s a clear violation of people’s rights. The ACLU has already made a statement that they will fight super registration until the end of days.”

“It’s amazing what people will stand for when they believe their safety is threatened,” the last of the four correspondents interjected, his face appearing where the others had been. “Look at all the changes that happened after 9/11, look at what the Patriot Act did.”

“Griff,” said the first of the huge men turning to the smaller man. His sausage-like finger nearly crushed the remote control for the television as he muted the next reply. “What does all that mean?”

The small man looked away from the television, his face locked in a thoughtful expression. Looking at him you would never expect the rapt attention all the others suddenly gave him. He was less than half their size, five foot eight at most, the shortest of the others had a good six inches on him. He was slimly built and sported a goatee on his slightly weathered face. A wide brimmed hat rested on his head and shaded his eyes. “All that means we have problems,” he said in a concerned matter of fact manner.

“I don’t like problems,” the largest of them said, there was a childlike petulant quality to his voice.

“I know Wayne,” Griff said soothingly, “none of us do but don’t worry.” As Griff spoke Wayne seemed to calm down a bit, he nodded and sat back turning his attention back to the screen.

“Seriously Griff,” the first man asked, “What do you think this means for us?”

“Seriously Walt, nothing good.” He stood up and started pacing, maneuvering through the crowded room. “Do you guys remember what happened after 9/11?” He didn’t stop and wait for an answer. “In addition to the war and all the new security etcetera, there were all sorts of laws put in to give the government new ways to track and stop terrorists.”

“Yeah,” said another of the small giants, “but we aren’t terrorists.”

“No Sam, we aren’t, but people manipulated those laws to go after criminals who they couldn’t nail under the normal laws. They bypassed due process and search and seizure and all those things we use to keep the cops away.” He stopped his pacing and looked right at Sam. “We aren’t terrorists but we are supers. With this level of destruction by supers as an act of terrorism the eye of the law is going to fall on all supers, especially those of us who live outside the law.”

“You mean crooks,” another of the large men said laughing at his own words.

“Sure Rafe, crooks. But it won’t matter that we wouldn’t think about doing anything like that. We will be guilty just because of who we are and how we act.”

“But they aren’t allowed to do that,” Sam said, “they are supposed to obey the law. We break it.”

“Yeah, if you think cops or heroes never break the law Sam then you are unbelievably stupid.”

“Hey,” threw back Sam, “I’m not stupid, but I’m not talking about a cop who takes his usuals. I’m talking about openly breaking the law by applying rules about terrorists to ordinary… OK, extraordinary criminals.”

“They won’t actually break the rules,” Griff explained, “it’s all about the loopholes. We exploit loopholes to stay out of jail all the time. Well, they exploit loopholes just as easily. They don’t really care if the loophole eventually gets closed, they don’t even care if we eventually get let out on appeal. All they care about is using the loophole to get us off the street if possible.”

“So what are you suggesting? We lay low and hide?” asked the last of them, a large man of mixed race.

“No,” replied Griff, “hiding will just convince the cops, who already are looking for a way to come after us. It will look like we have something to hide after the attack. Hiding will only make it worse.”

“So what?”

“I don’t know Marlon, I really don’t know.”

Marlon and the rest looked stunned. It was the first time in five years together that they heard Griff admit he didn’t know what to do. When they were surrounded by the entire Brute Squad with no escape Griff never admitted he had any uncertainty. He guided them through everything and they always came out ahead.

Griff grabbed the remote away from Walt and unmuted the TV. A new show had started, this one was showing images of a college campus. A man in a blazer holding a microphone was walking across a lawn with ivy covered buildings in the background as he began to speak.

“Here at Lander University as well, as all four of the other schools which play host to HCP programs, we are told that applications to the HCP just hit an all-time high. A spokesman for the HCP program here at Lander has stated they have no intention of decreasing their standards for acceptance or increasing their class size just because this attack has made more people interested in becoming super heroes.”

Rafe started to laugh again, “We… we can always…” he had to stop and catch his breath. “We can always become super heroes.” He collapsed in gales of laughter and the others except for Griff and Wayne joined in, though with less enthusiasm. Griff shook his head and Wayne looked confused.

Marlon stopped laughing after a minute. “Wait a minute, why not become super heroes?” He stood up suddenly gesticulating wildly and knocking over a stand lamp next to his chair. “It’s perfect, no one would suspect us then, they get respect, and they get money. I heard Gemstone makes millions a year even after she gives ninety percent of it to charity.”  

“Marlon,” interrupted Griff with no success.

“Adamant is rich, Torsade stars in movies, Dyna…”

“Marlon!” Griff interrupted with more force this time and Marlon cutoff in mid-word turning to face him.

“What?” he asked pleadingly.

“It would never work.”

“Sure it would, we’re strong enough, we’ve beaten heroes before. If we can beat them we can be them.”

“Ok,” Griff started, “let’s say they ignore the criminal records three of you have. Let’s say they forget about the fact that even those of us without records are people of interest. Let’s say they forget all that. Do any of you think you can go to college at this point?” He looked at each of them in turn. “Do you think Wayne can?” Wayne turned away from the screen again on hearing his name. “It’s OK Wayne,” Griff said using the same soothing tone he used before, “go back to watching TV.”

“OK Griff,” Wayne replied and turned back to the news report.

“Let’s say miracle of miracles they take us all, even Wayne,” he glanced over at him but he was still watching TV, a smile on his face as the fight between Tantamount and Faraday is shown, it rapidly turned to a look of despair when it switched to Tantamount and the psychic, Mariana, as she pulled the doll out of the wreckage.

“Awww,” he said, “someone broke the dolly.”

Griff uttered a few soothing words and once again Wayne was smiling and watching the TV. Then Griff turned and addressed the others again. “Let’s say all that happens. You know only one in five make it through, we stick together, that’s why we live, that’s how we survive. Right?” he asked.

“Yeah.” “Right.” “Of course.” “Damn straight!” came from the others.

“OK, said Sam this time, “HCP, bad idea. What about something else that’s legit and lets us use our powers? Something that lets us all stay together. How about cage fighting? The super level ultimate fighting is popular, those guys make lots of money. We’re naturals, we can sign on as a heel team, play the bad guys.”

“Yeah,” agreed Marlon quickly, “we can actually get paid and respected for being the bad guys,” he laughed again but no one joined him. “Come on guys that’s funny.”

“It won’t work either,” said Griff calmly.

“What? Why not?” asked Marlon.

“For similar reasons. The criminal record isn’t as much of a problem, lots of guys in there have rap sheets. But we wouldn’t get the protection joining the HCP would give. The league would just be an open place to hide out. If we were becoming heroes they might, and I mean might, assume we aren’t a threat. But cage fighters are violent until proven otherwise, the whole sport revolves around violence.”

“Yeah man,” added Walt, “I’d love to try my hand in the ring against Rick ‘Right’ Cross, I bet I could lay him out.”

“Sure you could Walt,” Griff chuckled, he recalled meeting Walt for the first time five years ago, he was hanging out outside the Nassau Coliseum waiting to get an autograph from the very same cage fighter he was now wishing he could fight. When he couldn’t get the autograph he got a little upset. Only his own swift action kept him out of jail that night. That was when he started gathering the Beat Street Boyz.  

“You da man Walt,” said Wayne, jumping up and getting in on the conversation. The whole place shook a little as he jumped.

“Yeah he is Wayne,” agreed Griff, “but we better keep that quiet,” he shifted tone again, “or else ‘Right’ Cross will know he’s coming and he might not fight him. It’s got to be a surprise.”

“Oh, oh yeah,” he said light dawning on his face, “sure Griff, I’ll keep it quiet,” he stopped jumping and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ll be your biggest fan Walt.”

As Wayne sat down again, Griff added in a quieter voice, “they’ll never take Wayne, too much liability, not enough control.” He looked at each of them in turn again. “I worry about all of your control,” he said more seriously, “the number one reason a cage fighter is kicked out is lack of ability to control their violent tendencies. I know you would try but I don’t think most of you have it in you.”

“I try Griff,” Walt added, “I really do. I just get so frustrated sometimes.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said with understanding in his voice. “Also, let’s face it, I’m not really cut out for cage fighting.”

“Come on Griff, you could be our manager, and we don’t need Wayne to fight, he could be part of our posse, everyone there has an entourage.”

“No. Wayne sees one of us fighting and he will join in. We want it that way, just here it works against us.”

“Shit!” exclaimed Rafe, “so you’re telling us we’re well and truly fucked.”

“No Rafe,” Griff shook his head, “I’m telling you I don’t know what to do yet.” He looked closely at each of them. Except for Wayne, who was still amusing himself watching the TV, they all looked like someone just ran over their puppy.

As quiet came over the room again the voice of the reporter on the TV almost sounded like he was shouting. “At recruiting stations around the country we are seeing an echo of the days after 9/11 where they are seeing higher enlistment numbers than any time since World War II.  Recruiters around the country have actually been instructed to not accept any enlistments at this time. People’s names and contact information are being taken so that they can make such a decision with some distance from the shock of Meredith Falls.”

The scene focused on a recruiting station in Chicago where the Force Ops shield was prominently displayed. “Unlike 9/11 a large rise in supers attempting to enlist has also been seen. Speculation is that since this was a terrorist event by supers there is either a belief that it will take supers to stop them or a lingering guilt that this was allowed to happen.”

“Interesting,” said Griff, suddenly paying close attention to the reporter.

“A memo issued today from the office of General Joshua Glenn, Commander of Army Force Ops, stated that Force Ops is following the temporary suspension of enlistments but expects to resume normal operations for enlistment within forty eight hours.”

“That’s it!” exclaimed Griff excitedly. “Boys, we are joining Force Ops.”

His proclamation was immediately followed by stares of disbelief. Marlon shook off his stunned shock first, “Fuck no!” which immediately brought all the others in on the side of not enlisting.

“Guys,” interrupted Griff, “stop a minute and think about this. We are all perfect for Force Ops. They can never get enough high level supers, all of us range in the upper level of our power sets. We can enlist together and insist upon being stationed together. There aren’t so many supers in the military that it should be a problem. Wayne should be OK, the army has a history of taking guys with,” he glanced over at Wayne still watching TV and pitched his voice low, “lower IQs.”

“You mean they take people who are dumb as stumps,” laughed Rafe.

Griff shot a glance back to the TV once again but Wayne didn’t seem to notice Rafe’s outburst. He hated being called dumb.

“Yeah Rafe, that’s what I mean, but shut the fuck up you stupid asshole. Say something like that again and Wayne is gonna tear of your sack and stuff it down your throat, and I won’t do a thing to stop him.

Rafe suddenly seemed to realize what he said, “Oh shit! Griff man, I’m sorry,” he looked nervously over at Wayne. “I was just joking, I didn’t mean Wayne…  I… Man Griff you wouldn’t let him do that to me again. Would you?” He looked pleadingly at Griff, “come on man, it hurt so fuckin much and finding a healer who could regenerate my balls cost me months of my share.”

“It’s alright Rafe, just… learn to keep your stupid mouth shut. It’s a skill you are going to need in Force Ops.”

“Come on Griff, we aren’t really gonna join the army, are we?”

“I haven’t told you the most important reason why we are. Force Ops gives us the protection we need right now.”

“Griff,” replied Sam, “seriously, the army? If it was hard to picture us in college, can you really picture us in the army? Following orders, crew cuts, yes sir, no sir. Come on man, we’re the Beat Street Boyz, we don’t take shit from no one.” All the others nodded and murmured agreement. “That’s why you put us together, that’s why we stay together.”

“And this is how we keep staying together. I can’t think of another way.”

“You gonna be happy with army pay Griff?” asked Walt. “We have a pretty sweet life now and while you might have some money squirreled away it won’t last.”

“I know a guy who was in the army and came out a millionaire, he was a master of procurement. Anything anyone needed or wanted, he got it. I think among the group of us we can easily do the same. You never know what opportunities will present themselves for profit.”

“No Griff, it ain’t gonna happen,” said Sam, “we follow you but… not there… and if that’s the end, well it’s been a good run. It took a freaking town being turned into a crater to break us up, that’s gotta say something.” He dropped his voice again, glancing over to the couch where Wayne was sitting. “And if you’re going to do this,” he paused for just a bit, “well, Wayne can stay with me. Don’t worry I’ll look after him. I can usually handle him when you aren’t around,” he added hesitantly.

Griff looked around and saw the others were with Sam on this. ‘How did he lose them?’ he wondered. ‘I’m usually much better at predicting which way they’ll jump. It’s the damn attack and all the coverage. I’m flustered,’ he answered his own question in his thoughts. ‘I haven’t had to do this to them in four years, things have gone so well till now. I hate this.

“Yes Sam, it will happen.” He answered, the timbre of his voice changing, his speech was more insistent without sounding either desperate or whining. “We are all going to join Force Ops.” He looked over at them, they were listening intently now, their eyes were slightly dilated. “It’s the only way we can stay together and get the protection we need.”

“Yeah of course,” said Sam and all the others echoed him. “You’re right, it makes perfect sense.”

“Of course Griff,” added Rafe.

Then Walt jumped in with “You know we always follow you Griff. You think this is what we need to do and we do it.”

Griff looked over at Marlon, he didn’t have to worry about Wayne, he would follow their lead but he needed all of the remaining four to follow. One of them broke loose now and disagreed all of them would and he might not recover.

Marlon had a war of emotions battling across his face, he almost looked like he was in pain. ‘Damn,’ thought Griff, ‘he always was the strongest willed of them, despite the evidence to the contrary,’ he bent his will toward Marlon.

“Marlon, you know we all go together,” he said, the tone of his voice insistent but somehow welcoming as well. “We’ll still be the Beat Street Boyz, but now we’ll be the Beat Street Boyz in black uniforms.” He pushed as hard as he could, “we need you.”

Marlon looked at him, still clearly uncomfortable. “Griff… I…”

Come on Marlon,’ Griff thought, ‘just give in before you pop an aneurysm’.

“Griff… Why Griff, there’s more to this.” Each word came slowly, Marlon’s strength translated to his force of will also.

Damn an iron will is supposed to just be a saying,’ thought Griff and kept concentrating. “What do you mean there’s more to it?” he asked. ‘Maybe if I give in a little he’ll stop fighting back so much’.

“Griff, why do you want to join Force Ops, it’s not to hide, it’s not for protection, we can protect ourselves. There’s a reason. Tell me what it is.”

Well when all else fails,’ thought Griff. His voice took on a more weary tone, he was clearly tired. “I’m… disgusted, I suppose is the best way to describe it. I’m disgusted with what happened in Meredith Falls. I went through there once, maybe ten years ago, before I met any of you. I was just wandering back then, still finding my way. I remember the place, nice town, nice people. I hated to use my powers there. And now… look Marlon, we may be bad men… I may be a bad man. I rob, cheat, and steal. I’m not above hurting someone who is out to hurt me or mine. I’m even OK with hurting someone to get what I want. I may be a bad man but I’ve never seen evil like that, and I god damn hope I never see it again.”

He reached into a pocket and took out a flask, he opened it took a slug and handed it toward Marlon, shaking it in offering. As Marlon took it he continued. “The problem is I know we’ll see it again. The world is changing. This isn’t the same world it was two days ago and it will never be that world again.” He took back the flask and drank what was left inside it. “If that’s what it’s going to mean to be a bad guy then I don’t want any part of it. I want to separate us from anything considered villainous.” He shook his head as if he didn’t believe what he was about to say. “No more than that, I want to be there to stand in their way and spit in their eye. I want them to know that there are lines that should never be crossed. I want them to know it’s not just the heroes that stand against them. I want them to know they have no place in this world. And then… then I want to put a bullet in their brains.”

Suddenly Marlon’s face smoothed out. “Of course you need me Griff, who else is gonna put up with all your shit. Right, we’re in the army now, just call me Major Marlon.”

“One step at a time Marlon, one step at a time.” He looked around, he was going to miss this place. “Alright guys, we have two or three days to get ready. Let’s see what we want to pack up and try to set up a nest egg for when things die down and we finish our hitch.”

Other than Wayne, who remained watching the TV, they all started moving about, gathering boxes, finding papers, generally getting ready to close up shop. Griff looked up from a pile of papers at his five… friends… teammates… subordinates… servants? Whatever they were he would be happier seeing them in a black Force Ops uniform than locked in some concrete cell waiting to be ‘interrogated’ by people who weren’t as gentle at convincing others as he is. He was halfway through burning some papers that should never be seen by anyone when he suddenly realized, he had stopped using his power on Marlon at the end. He looked over at him and the others. ‘Yeah,’ he thought, ‘definitely friends’.

__________

The bar was dark, the little bit of lighting came from flickering LEDs placed here and there around the room. This was not the kind of bar you where you came to pick up women or hang out with friends. At this bar you drank to forget your troubles. To stand alone among others going through the same shit knowing they wouldn’t chase you away out of fear. The people in this bar weren’t different here. Here they were among their own kind.

The air was dry, but the pervasive heat found outside wasn’t so bad in here. No air conditioner whined to try to keep up with the New Mexico desert but the hundreds of tons of concrete which made up the walls served as a great heat sink.

Dissonant music started up, the place seemed like some exclusive underground club where the latest nihilist band was about to take the stage. Above the main bar a new light flashed into existence as a neon sign lit up proclaiming ‘The Silo’ for everyone in the room to see. Other lights winked on here and there flashing in time to the music. Occasionally it lit the edge of the room well enough to see the curving walls of the place. The concrete was damaged here and there, cracked or scorched, in one place it sagged like oatmeal revealing rebar and girders hidden beneath. The walls bore mute evidence of why the patrons of this particular bar weren’t welcome outside it.

Leaning against one wall Michael Hynes, Mickey to his friends, though he didn’t really have any of those, nursed a drink. He stood there staring out at the crowd of his people, the crowd of powereds. It seemed to him that the patrons were more frenetic tonight, more desperate than they normally were, and that was saying a lot. The mood in The Silo was never good, it was always overlaid with a patina of depression, a hatred of the lot that life had cast them in. Tonight it was worse.

When the music died down he moved away from his perch walking to the center of the round room.  As he went bits of this and that fell out of the air behind him, a rock, a coin-like disc, shredded paper with the consistency of confetti, a misshapen lump of steel, something that looked like a gold nugget and was quickly snatched up by another patron. Random items, random bits of this and that. He ignored them all, he kept walking until he was almost dead center in the bar. He raised his glass upward, glancing up the hundred feet or more to the sealed doors which served as a roof to this place, he leveled his gaze, stared out at the rest of the crowd and shouted at the top of his lungs, “To Meredith Falls!”

There was only silence meeting him for a second, then a couple of hundred or more voices answered back, “To Meredith Falls.”

He wasn’t sure why he gave the toast. He thought there should be some memorial everywhere for those people but especially here. “The survivors are probably the only people in the world worse off than powereds,” he muttered under his breath.

“Whine, whine, whine,” slurred a short man in an open trench coat. Mickey was so surprised that at first he thought he was asking for something to drink but then he realized he was reacting to what he had just said. Anger surged through Mickey and was reflected in the area around him which became a sudden hailstorm of small pebbles and bits of wood. He looked around at the sudden deluge of clutter and sighed, he was tired of people comparing him to Pigpen from Peanuts.

“Excuse me?” Mickey said, trying to calm himself before he decked this annoying drunk. In this place it wasn’t really safe to throw a punch, you never knew when the person you hit might turn to stone or explode, or have acidic skin.

“You heard me, you self-loathing excuse for a man. Whining about your plight.” The man in the trench walked over to the bar, he had a pronounced limp and Mickey notice he had a metal cage around his leg, the kind of support an orthopedist might put on when someone had surgery to repair a fracture.

Mickey looked closer, he had never seen him before, he wasn’t a regular, and he had never been to any of the support groups as far as he could tell. ‘He’s too old for his power to have just come on him. Maybe he’s new to the area?’ He got ahead of him and faced him. “If you’re not careful you’re going to get your ass kicked,” he said by way of warning. “If you had said that to Leo over there he would have probably killed you. He calls himself Leo Go Boom, do you want to take a guess as to why?”

The stranger looked up at Mickey’s face, shook his head, and then walked around him. He stumped up to the bar and shouted for the bartender.

“What will you have?” asked the bartender.

“Well you won’t have what I really want so how about grappa, do you have that?” he said, “the good stuff if you have it.”

“Not much call for that around here but I have everything,” replied the bartender. He looked at the stranger, sizing him up. “I’m Turk, this is my place. You’re new here so you have no tab, I’m gonna have to ask for some money up front and I don’t take credit cards. Lots of sad cases around here who can’t pay a bar bill and think I’ll let them off the hook, powered solidarity and all that.”

“Heh, yeah right, no such thing,” the stranger replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills. He unfolded it and took a hundred off the stack. “Is this enough to start me a tab?” He pulled out four more of the same bill. “How about this? That ought to be enough,” he said.

Turk took the bills and looked closely at them. He then put in on a small machine he kept behind the bar, laying them one at a time on a flat grid and watching a laser run over the surface of the bill. After each bill was put through the scanner a small green light lit up. “Can’t be too careful,” Turk said, “a couple of years ago we had a guy in here who turned leaves into money, couldn’t decide what kind of money or how long it would last. As powereds go his curse wasn’t so bad. Course when he tried to pass them off here, that was bad.”

“Heh, I’m sure,” replied the stranger, “no worries here mate, my money is good.”

“What should I call you?” asked Turk.

“Thirsty,” said the stranger and made a small shooing motion. “My grappa?”

Turk shook his head but that was the only thing you could take as a negative about his response. He went to a room behind the bar and came out with a dusty bottle.

“Just give me the bottle and a glass,” the stranger said. Turk did so and the stranger took a seat at one of the small tables that dotted the edge of the room.

Mickey saw him sit down alone in the shadowy area. He had watched the whole exchange with Turk and was somewhat surprised Turk hadn’t thrown the little piss ant out, he’d seen him throw out people for less of an insult. ‘But,’ he thought, ‘none of them had a stack of hundred dollar bills shoved into their pocket.’ He walked over to the table the stranger went to and saw he had poured a glass of the potent drink which sat on the table opposite him where a second chair waited. He was drinking right from the bottle, a small trail of the liquid dripping down his face through his stubble and along his neck.

As Mickey approached he shook his head, “It’s not the good stuff,” he said and gestured for Mickey to sit. When Mickey hesitated he spoke again, “look you have something to say to me and I’m going to let you say it, but I’m not going to sit here and drink while you lecture me. So either you sit down and have a drink with me and say your piece or you get the fuck out of my face and leave me alone.”

Mickey pulled out the chair, the scraping sound being echoed by more small items dropping to the ground around the table. He sat and picked up the glass. “What are we drinking to since you didn’t like my toast to the fallen?” he said sullenly.

“The fallen, why not toast the Towers, or Oklahoma City? What about New Orleans? How about Nagasaki or Coventry? How about Alexandria, or Pompeii, or Troy?” He shook his head. “There are always fallen, there is always loss, go watch Kubrik’s 2001, since man came from apes there has always been killing, there has always been death. Cities come and cities go, we walk on the dust where once stood empires. Who is to say when the next empire will fall?”

“Some of those were natural disasters you know.”

“Ah right, natural,” he looked thoughtful, “of course.” He took another drink from the bottle.

“So what would you toast to if not the fallen?”

A single mirthless chuckle escaped his lips. He raised the bottle. “To the survivors! And to the warriors who emerge from the wreckage and hold back the darkness once more!”

Mickey raised his glass, “Yeah why not. To the survivors and the warriors. Go kick some ass fellas.” He tossed back the drink and promptly stopped breathing. He sputtered and choked and shook his head to clear it.

“Yeah,” the little man said as he took a swig from the bottle at least twice as much as Mickey just drank, “I told you it wasn’t the good stuff.”

“I… I…” he coughed again trying to catch his breath, showers of gravel and moss fell all around them, “huuuuuuh…” he took a deep shuddering breath, “I’m not sure I could survive the good stuff,” he finally got out between deep inhalations as small bursts of light, like sparklers formed all around him.

The little man laughed out loud, he nearly fell from his seat. “Oh my friend,” he looked at the sour face on Mickey, “come now we have shared a drink surely we are friends.” He went on without waiting for a response. “My friend you don’t know how true your words are.”

“Yeah well… look just be careful, this isn’t a place to go and shoot your mouth off, this is a place to drink and commiserate among our own kind.”

The little man laughed again. “Oh my friend, why do you think I am your kind?”

“What…” Mickey couldn’t have been more shocked if he had told him there was a cure for being powered, “you aren’t a powered?” he said a little too loud. He looked around quickly no one seemed to have noticed his outburst. He dropped his voice to a whisper, “you aren’t a powered? What are you doing here? Why would a super come to The Silo, you guys don’t need a freaking nuclear missile bay to contain the drunken consequences of no control.”

“I don’t think I said I was a super,” he looked thoughtful then slowly shook his head, “no, I definitely didn’t say I was a super.”

If Mickey looked shocked when this little man said he wasn’t a powered, he was utterly floored when he revealed himself to be a normal. A normal who walked into The Silo and surrounded himself with some of the most uncontrolled dangerous people alive. “What are you?” he asked. “A super groupie who can’t get near the heroes so figures he can slum with some powereds?” When he got no response he shot out another thought. “Wait, are you one of those danger freaks, looking for the thrill of being locked in a room with a bunch of out of control powereds who could kill you as simple as breathing?” He stood up and shook his head, “well I want nothing to do with it. You crazy bastard go get yourself killed away from me.”

“My friend, we were doing so well.” He pulled back the left side of his trench revealing the butt of a large handgun, dull gunmetal blue sitting in a quick draw holster under his right arm. “I also never said I couldn’t protect myself.” He gestured Mickey back to the seat.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked taking his seat again. “Are you crazy bringing a gun in here?” He pitched his voice to a loud whisper so no one else could hear. “Half the guys in here a gun wouldn’t bother despite the fact that we’re only powereds. And if Turk saw it you would be lucky if he didn’t shove it so far up your ass that you would be shitting bullets. Along with any fingers that happened to be holding it at the time.”

“See, I told you we were friends,” he said jauntily, “you are trying to give me advice to save my worthless life.”

“Worthless is right, because your chances of getting out of here if you have a similar drink with anyone else here are no better than one in ten. Most of the people who come here are on the extreme high end of uncontrolled power. Why the hell do you think Turk built this place here? If the walls could contain the launch of an ICBM it can contain most of us.”

“You don’t seem so dangerous my friend,” the little man said looking around at the piles of clutter forming around them. “What’s your name anyway? I can’t just keep calling you my friend despite the clear affection I hold for you.”

“What’s your name?” Mickey shot back. “I can’t keep just calling you that freaking insane guy.”

Again he laughed, “Yes well I suppose I am, aren’t I? Very well in the cause of friendship I will give you my name.” He paused as if trying to remember something, “My name is Ni... no, um it’s He… no well, I haven’t used that name in a long time, just call me Rube,” he said shaking his head. Mike heard him muttering something else under his breath, “…er life,’ or something like that. He couldn’t make out the whole thing.

“Ok then… Rube,” he said slowly, “my name is Mickey”

“Is that short for Michael?”

“Yeah but I go by Mickey.”

“Very well Michael,” he said ignoring him, “that’s a noble name you know. Michael is the archangel who leads god’s armies again the forces of Satan. Sounds like a noble calling.” He seemed to be more serious than he had been before, despite the subject matter.

“Yeah well slim chance of that for me,” he said holding his glass out for Rube to fill it with more grappa. When he did so Mickey took a sip, much more carefully than before.

“Why do you say that? You are strong and capable. You can channel your wrath and bury your enemies.”

“What don’t you understand about powered? I have no control over it, random crap falls from the air around me, I get excited or upset and it gets worse but it never stops and it’s never anything I want. Every now and then something valuable falls out which keeps me eating.” He stopped and laughed for a second, “Johnny Three Eyes grabbed a piece of pyrite that fell before, he has a bit of disappointment coming. When I think about it, I know what falls. I just can’t control what falls.”

“You toasted the fallen and then raised your glass as I toasted the warriors. Do you not intend to join them?”

Mickey just started unbelieving at Rube.

“Are you not going to gird on weapons and lead the army of god against the forces of Satan?”

“I was right, you are insane.”

“Probably.”

“I told you, I’m powered I can’t fight them, I can’t lead armies, and I can’t gird on weapons… who girds on weapons anyway? I’m not an angel and I’m no warrior.”

“Oh I think you sell yourself short my friend.”

“I’m not your friend!” he shouted standing suddenly again, this time several other patrons and Turk took notice. He shook his head at Turk, indicating he didn’t need to do anything. Turk took security in the Silo very seriously. He put a lot into this place, it was his place, it was the place for the powered. ‘We don’t have very many places, he’s not going to let this one go’ he thought. He sat again to show him that a fight wasn’t about to break out. Turk and the others turned away but he could tell they were paying attention now. ‘Great,’ he thought, ‘just what I want Turk watching me while I have to deal with a crazy man’. “Don’t get me kicked out of this bar, I love this bar.”

“Alright, Michael, you are no angel, the warriors never are.”

“I’m not a warrior either,” he closed his eyes and shook his head, “I’m just a cripple.”

“No my friend,” he reached across the table and grasped Mickey’s shoulder, “you aren’t a cripple. The only cripples are those who let their disabilities get the best of them. Your body can’t cripple you, your power can’t cripple you, only your mind can cripple you.”

“Easy for you to say, you aren’t a powered.”

Rube got up from the table and stood up straight so he was his full height, he was five foot four at best and wide for his height. He tilted a bit, the bad leg being more obvious when he wasn’t slouching. “People would call me crippled but I am not, I refuse to see myself that way. I am strong,” he gestured down at the bad leg, “this does not make me a cripple. My mind refuses this definition and thus I am not a cripple.”

“Yeah you have a bad leg, so what? You wear a brace. There is no brace for being powered.”

“Ahh, so we come to the heart of it.” He said taking his seat again and pouring another glass of grappa for Mickey. Mickey looked down at his glass, he hadn’t even realized he had finished it. “Man can build a brace for my leg to straighten it and let me walk. What if such a thing could be built for your power? What if you had a brace? What would you do with it?”

“Might as well ask me what I would do with the moon, you could get that easier. Such a thing doesn’t exist.”

“Humor me… in the name of friendship.”

Mickey’s thoughts were a swirl, the tragedy of Meredith Falls, the shock of Far From Noble, the grappa which was definitely affecting him, and dealing with an absolute crazy person all added up to a level of confusion and disorientation which he hadn’t experienced since the first time crap started falling from the air around him when he was twelve and out with a girl for the first time. “What do you want me to say?”

“Tell me your heart! Tell me your soul!”

“Alright! You want to know what I would do?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”

“Fine!” he almost shouted, heedless of anyone who might decide to pay attention. “If I could, I would do exactly what you said. I would gird on my weapons and fight against those who did this. It takes a special kind of evil to do what they did. You want to talk about the forces of Satan? Well they call themselves Far From Noble.”

Rube looked him right in the eye as he said it and when his admission was complete, Rube nodded once, as if in salute. “Well my friend, I wish you luck in this, there are many warriors who will come to this fight I think. It will be a war such as you have never seen before. Take up your name and your birthright and smite the forces of evil.”

“I don’t think so,” he shook his head, “there is no place in the world for a powered like me. Some maybe, some can gain some enough control. They can use techno tricks to help them, or learn ways to train the trigger for their powers. Like forcing a sneeze or a burp or whatever they are linked to. But not me, I can maybe learn to make the crap that falls all around me come down a little harder or a little less but I can’t control it. I can’t start or stop it and I can’t decide what it is.” He looked right into Rube’s eyes, “no not for me, I will never be a warrior in this fight.”

“Michael, there is no such thing as never. If there is one thing I have learned in many years it is that. The world is changing Michael. Who is to say how it will change for you?”

With that he raised the bottle again for a toast. “To you Michael, to your war, to your faith, and to your mind, remember always you are no cripple and you never will be.” He tilted back the bottle to drink the last of it.

Mickey picked up the glass filled to the brim with the potent drink. He probably had too much of it already but he didn’t care. He raised it high and threw it back all at once. His head tilted back to get the very last drop and again he saw the doors on the ceiling which once would have opened to release nuclear destruction across the world but now just kept out the weather. He wondered briefly if the coming war would be worse than a nuclear war. It didn’t matter in the end he wouldn’t be fighting in it.

When he lowered his head and his vision cleared Rube was gone. Sitting in front of him on the table was Rube’s gun. It was a large semi-automatic revolver, he would have called it a hand cannon. There was a laser sight attached to it, and a place to screw on a silencer. This thing was made for killing. Dirty Harry would have looked at it and pissed himself.

He looked around, Turk was distracted by another customer, no one else seemed to be looking. He knew he had to get that thing out of sight before someone saw it and blamed him for bringing a gun into The Silo. He grabbed it and moved it to his lap where no one could see it.

Something changed.

It was so subtle he almost missed it. He stared for a second, looked from side to side. What was it? He could tell there was a change. The music was still going in the background, the lighting hadn’t changed, then it hit him and he stopped breathing.

The sound… the sound of things hitting the ground around him was gone.

__________

It was a good night. Not the best but good. The crowd was excited, given the last few days he wasn’t surprised. People frequently need some entertainment to get rid of the horrors of violence. He walked down the aisle of the arena his head held high. He was surrounded by flunkies, hangers on, and yes men. His kind of people, they helped support the image he cultivated and he liked having an entourage.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer’s amplified voice rang out, “entering the arena to challenge for the title of the Ultimate Level Combat League Champion, the one, the only, Max ‘the Muscle’ Malone.” Each word of his name was emphasized, even his first name. He kept trying to get them to drop it and just call him Muscle Malone but the league kept refusing, they liked the alliteration they kept saying. It just kept bringing to mind the hero Maximum, who everyone called Max. They were both strongmen and while the league loved the comparison and the people who kept guessing that they were the same person, despite overwhelming proof that they were not, he hated it. ‘Why can’t they just call me X instead of Max, or just Muscle like I wanted?

He got to the center of the arena where the cage stood. The thing was huge. Thirty feet tall, fifty feet across, with three inch thick alloy bars built to contain human implements of destruction. Tonight was an “anything goes” match and people were looking for blood. It was this whole Meredith Falls thing. Everyone was scared and when confronted with true violence then they wanted to see “fake violence.” Time and time again the ULCL has denied that anything was fake. No one was sure who really believed it. ‘Seriously,’ he thought, ‘what do they think is going to happen when you put a bunch of supers into an unbreakable cage and tell them no one comes out until only one is standing?’ He looked over at the team of six healers on call for the fight. ‘Hell if not for them they wouldn’t just get blood, they would get death’.

Time for a show,’ he thought and leapt on top of the cage. Cheers erupted all across the arena. He grabbed the chain that was used to raise and lower the cage with one arm and pivoted around it so everyone could get a good look. He flexed and his robe tore across his back, the screens hanging throughout the arena focus on his back and the audience saw the lettering indicating he was ‘The Muscle shredded into unreadability.  He raised his free arm to the crowd and he was met by cheers as well as boos, ‘Not everyone loves a showboating heel, but in this sport heels can win. As long as we have the talent’. He started pumping his fist in the air and the crowd chanted in rhythm with his motions. “Muscle… Muscle… Muscle…” the cheers clearly outshouting the boos at this point.

The noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by loud music, a heavy electronic beat sounded through the arena. The lights flashed in time and audience started singing out the title line of Martin Solveig’s “We came to smash”.  His eyes rolled upward and almost snapped the large chain link he was currently gripping. ‘Just because the song has his freaking stage name in it…’ his anger smoldered. ‘Use it’, he thought, ‘use the anger, it just makes me stronger and focuses me. I’ll show him I came to smash… his head in’.

As the music faded to a more reasonable level the announcers voice rang out again.  “And now entering the arena, Samson Smaaaaash,” he extended the last name ridiculously. ‘God damn league, his name is Sam, and they don’t use his last name cause Fink doesn’t flow well and makes their hero sound like a heal’. Smash didn’t jump up to face him on top of the cage, instead he activated his power and his whole body began to glow. As the audience cheered the glow moved outward forming a skin of energy around him which grew until he was floating off the ground in a nine foot tall shimmering duplicate of himself. He’d have to watch himself in the fight, that energy body of his was tough and kept most of the damage away from him. It gave him incredible reach but he knew it made him clumsy. Muscle jumped down and face his opponent. He had to look up because of the form, if he refused to acknowledge the construct he’d be staring at Sam’s crotch and that wouldn’t play well. ‘Man, if this guy hadn’t shown up I would be champion already. Freaking nineteen year old kid with an impressive power set. I’ve been working at this for six years and tonight it’s mine, punk kid or no punk kid’.

Muscle was getting ready to turn and step into the cage when the announcer’s voice came on again interrupting his action. “And now would everyone please rise in a moment of silence for the victims of the attack on Meredith Falls and the brave heroes who lost their lives trying to rescue survivors.” There was a short murmur as everyone in the audience stood and then overwhelming silence filled the arena. Muscle bent his head and stood there for the minute with everyone else. Then he and his opponent turned and walked into the cage.

“Good luck,” Sam whispered to Muscle as they entered the wide door leading inside.

“Whatever Sam,” he replied, annoyed by the sentiment, “I don’t need luck, I’m gonna tear that suit of yours like plastic wrap.”

“Hey man, I know your persona but really, good luck, I just want to end on a good fight.”

“End? Sam, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“You’ll see in a second.”

The cage door clanged shut behind them and the powerful locks whirred as they engaged keeping them in and containing their destruction. The bars turned transparent to allow for a full view of the fight by the spectators. A containment field sprang up between the bars to prevent any debris they might create from exiting between the bars. Everyone still remembers when the fighter who simply called himself Rude had a tooth knocked loose and fly out nearly killing a spectator.

They got to the center of the cage and the referee came up to them holding an old style microphone. He recognized the ref, a super himself with the power to turn intangible. All the refs in the ULCL had some way to stay in the ring safely, his was a good way, he would never be in the way and you could fight right through him.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the ref began, “this is a title fight. Samson Smash is defending his belt against Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone. This is an anything goes match, the fight continues until one of the fighters is disabled or taps out, there are no technical knock outs or voted on victories in this fight. Healers are on hand for the conclusion of the match but there are no rounds and there is no healing while the match is underway.”

Before the ref could announce the start of the match Sam dropped his energy form and asked him for the microphone for a second. The ref looked confused. Clearly Sam hadn’t run this by anyone before this. Sam’s hand was out open and waiting while the ref tried to figure out what to do, this sort of thing never happened, all the boasting and bragging happened before the cage was closed. Not having a real choice the ref handed the mike over to Sam.

“I want to thank all of my fans,” he started, “if not for the huge support they have given me I would not be standing before you as champion.” Cheers erupted from around the arena as well as some boos which were clearly from Muscle’s fans. He gave them a moment to quiet down.

“So, it’s only fitting that here, as I stand in the cage to defend my title, I announce I am leaving the ULCL after this match. Win or lose I am retiring from cage fighting after tonight.” Stunned disbelief radiated from the crowd, echoes of “Noooo…” and “How could you?” ran through all jumbled together in a sudden cacophony.

Again he waited for the sound to die down. “This is not a decision I make lightly. I don’t want to leave you, my fans.” He paused again sighing before continuing. “But in light of the recent events in Meredith Falls, in light of the…” he paused looking for the right words to express his thoughts, “the sheer evil that showed its face in claiming responsibility. Well I just feel like I need to do more. The world is changing and I am changing with it. So I am announcing my retirement from the ULCL after tonight in order to take my place in the next class of the HCP.” A deafening cheer erupted from the crowd. Smash fans and Muscle fans alike all cheered the sentiment, a new hero to take up the cause, a new hero to fight against Far From Noble and their ilk.

When the noise died down for the third time he added, “I pledge to you that I will finish my four years in the HCP and stand tall defending this country and its people against supers who think that might makes right and having a little power entitles them to murder and destroy.” A last set of cheers nearly deafened them as he handed the microphone back to the referee and formed his other body again.

The referee started the fight and the two of them grappled Sam having the advantage of height and leverage while Muscle was clearly the stronger of the two. “Nice bit,” Muscle said to Sam as he grasped his arm and flipped him into the wall of the cage. “I didn’t think you had it in you to push those buttons in the crowd.”

Sam recovered and grabbed Muscle from the air as he tried to jump on him and press his advantage. “It’s not a bit,” he said as he slammed Muscle down into the floor of the ring. “I’m joining the HCP, I already got my acceptance confirmed.”

Muscle spun around and twisted out of Sam’s grip, “Oh yeah?” he asked snidely, “How do you plan to make the secret identity requirements when everyone knows your face and you just announced you are joining the HCP?”

“Fake name, change my appearance,” he said as they traded a series of blows to the cheers of the crowd. “I can do it, don’t you worry about it Max.”

Muscle grabbed Sam’s wrist in both arms as he overstepped and flipped him over. “I told you not to call me Max.” He said as he leapt onto Sam’s chest and started raining blow after blow on his face. The energy form flickered a bit with each punch he landed but it never shattered. ‘Damn energy form, he doesn’t take any damage and if I do knock it down I need to make sure not to kill the kid’.

“Sounds like someone has a Maximum complex,” he mocked. “You’d think the comparison would make you happy, after all he’s a great hero,” Sam added emphasizing ‘he’s’ just a bit more. He tried to knock Muscle off him without success, he had his legs locked around the energy forms chest and he couldn’t dislodge him.

“I hate that crap,” he kept raining blow after blow on the energy form, “I’m no hero, I don’t want to be compared to a hero, you want that shit, it’s all yours, but you’re gonna go there a loser cause I’m gonna take your title from you.” Sam tried to get leverage to flip him off but he just kept squeezing his legs together to hold on. “Hey Sam,” he said and started to laugh, “I’ll give you some help with the secret identity requirement. I’ll smash your face in so it’s not recognizable.”

Sam continued to struggle but the lock Muscle’s thighs had on his body wouldn’t budge. Seeing a defeat in the near future the crowd started the chant again, “Muscle… Muscle… Muscle.” Keeping his legs clenched he raised his arms over his head in a winner’s pose and half turned, rotating to show his face to the crowd as he prepared for the final series of blows.

Suddenly his legs started to come together no longer gripping Sam’s form. He was facing away showboating for the fans and he wasn’t sure what happened. Before he could turn back he was flying through the air again. He crashed into the cage not feeling it but the impact hard enough to knock the breath from him. He hadn’t had any time to prepare for the impact or he would have bounced off the wall easily. He shook his head to clear it and saw Sam coming toward him. The energy form was different, still nine feet tall but now it was skinny with oversized forearms, like a mockery of Popeye.

“I’ve been practicing altering the form Max,” Sam said emphasizing the name and heading toward Muscle. “I figure it will help in combat rankings when I get to the HCP. Can’t go from number one here to something less there.”

Sam pulled back to do his signature move and smash Muscle against the cage wall. Muscle went to duck under it only to be caught right in the pit of the stomach by a kick, the huge punch never actually thrown at him. Sam mocked him, “I’ve also been learning more and more about feints and distractions. Being strong might be enough out here but at the HCP being a strongman isn’t enough. It’s about tactics and tricks, using everything you have to the fullest possible extent.”

Muscle caught his breath and let his body become less rigid and more flexible, maybe he can use the Sam’s size and unbalanced nature against him, if he can reflect the blow back at him he might get the advantage back again. Sam seemed ready for anything he did though. The oversized forearms hit like sledgehammers if the person swinging them could lift ten tons or so. ‘It’s a good thing I can’t feel pain,’ he thought, ‘cause if I could this fight would have already been over damn it’. He finally managed to slip past Sam’s guard and knock him off balance when he came in a bit too fast. He might be practicing with new forms but he’s not perfect with them.

“You may have new tricks Sam but I’m still stronger than you.” Muscle planted his feet and pushed his forearm up into the energy forms midsection, actually lifting it off the ground. With his other arm he put his fingers right against the sternum and started pushing. Sam struggled but couldn’t seem to free himself, the oversized limbs not able to get at Muscle properly when he was so far inside their reach. Slowly, inch by inch Muscle’s hand was sinking into the energy form coming closer and closer to Sam’s head. Once there a single flick of a finger would be enough to knock him out. Muscle’s feet were sinking into the flooring as he exerted as much pressure as he could to pin Sam to the wall.

“You should definitely go off to be a hero, you don’t belong here Sam,” Muscle mocked, “I’m no hero and in a minute I’m going to beat you. Then I’m gonna go out with my flunkies and get wasted, pick up a girl or two and have a blast.” He continued pushing his hand into the energy form, sinking in like pushing into molasses. “You know what the difference between me and heroes are?” he asked. “People like me, we don’t fight for causes, we don’t fight for others, we fight for ourselves. Best motivation there is.”

Sam continued to struggle, tried in vain to reach Muscle without success. The chant of “Muscle” was going again, the fans were stomping their feet on the floors, the whole place was shaking. “Do… do you know what the real difference between heroes and people like you are Max?” Sam asked struggling to get the words out as he strained against the pressure Muscle was applying.

“You mean there’s more?” Muscle shot back.

Suddenly Muscle was falling forward hitting his head against the cage causing it to ring like a bell. Below him squatting on the ground he saw Sam, the energy form completely gone. ‘That crazy idiot!’ he thought, ‘he could have killed himself, if he didn’t get out from between me and the cage I would have turned him into paste’.

The energy body formed around Sam again, faster than Muscle ever saw him put it up before. This time it was squat and dense, barely taller than Sam himself. He was already in motion as the body was forming. Punching upward straight into Muscle’s chin, he had no time at all to react. The punch landed squarely and suddenly Muscle was flying upward and then impacting on the roof of the cage, the bars bending around him then actually tearing. As he came down bars and other debris rained down with him.

He landed on the floor of the ring embedding himself six inches into the reinforced material. He turned to face upward, wrenching himself out of the divot he was trapped in. Standing above him was the now squat form of Sam, his theme music was playing again and the crowd was singing “smash… smash…” in his hands was a four foot long piece of bar from the cage. “The real difference is heroes take crazy chances,” he swung the bar and hit him across the head, “heroes risk their lives,” the bar struck him again setting his head to ringing. He saw the bar coming at him again, unable to do anything to block it, “and in the end,” Sam said the last thing Muscle heard before he lost consciousness, “heroes win.”

Muscle wasn’t out for long, he came to before the healers even had a chance to work on him. His jaw was actually broken, his face was a mass of bruises, and still he tried to sit up before anyone did anything to him.

One of the healers came over to try and push him back down. He resisted, “no I gotta get back to the fight,” he shouted.

“Fights over Muscle,” it was his manager, ‘at least he knew better than to call him Max,’ he thought.

“What… I…” he mumbled, his jaw and tongue not cooperating with him.

“Muscle,” he said quietly, “let them heal you. You got hit bad in the head, you can’t tell how bad but you definitely have a concussion and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were bleeding in that thick skull of yours.”

Muscle lay back as his manager pressed back on his chest gently. The healer took a hold of him and let loose with his power. It was like he dove into icy water, he shook suddenly as the bruises receded from his face and the jawbone straightened and fused. “Brrrr,” he shivered, “I always hate that. I wonder if the alternative wouldn’t be better.”

“In this case,” the healer said, “the alternative was you would have been brain-dead in about three minutes as the blood in your skull squeezed what was left of your brain into jelly.”

“Hmm, might still have been better.”

“Muscle,” his manager said, “in your case, I’m not sure you weren’t already brain-dead.” He shook his head sadly, “God damn it Muscle, if you had just paid attention to the fight instead of showboating you probably would have beaten him. But the attention was more important to you than winning.”

Muscle wasn’t in the mood to hear more, there wasn’t anything they could say that he wasn’t already thinking. “Sal,” he said in answer to his manager, “don’t give me shit now. I’m outta here, I need a drink and some company,” he looked him up and down, “female company,” he clarified. “I need to work out all the pissed off I have before I can think about talking to you.” He got up and started for the locker rooms over Sal’s ignored objections.

He showered, changed into street clothes, and left the arena through a side exit. He left his entourage behind. In this mood he didn’t want yes men and flunkies to try and make him feel better. He needed a stiff drink and an easy woman, maybe several of each. He walked about ten blocks to get away from the arena crowd and then started looking for a bar. He found one called Liquid Gold and went inside. He found a place at the bar, there were a good number of people mingling, some music playing, and serious drinking going on. Just the kind of place he was looking for.

He was on his sixth or seventh drink and chatting up a promising looking nurse who had just gotten off her shift when the inevitable happened. Someone recognized him.

“Max the Muscle Malone,” the voice rang out.

Muscle kept his face down and ignored him, hoping against hope that when he didn’t react the fan would assume it wasn’t really him and move on.

“Max Malone,” he persisted, “that was an amazing fight, real shame how it turned out.”

He pointedly ignored the fan until the woman he was with also added “Are you this Muscle Malone guy?”

“Look,” Muscle turned to the fan angrily, “I’m here with this beautiful lady, and I’m not really interested in talking to anyone else right now.” He flashed the nurse a smile and clinked glasses with her having yet another drink.

“But I’m your biggest fan, you were robbed tonight, you had that kid dead to rights.”

“I don’t want to talk about it!”

The nurse looked uncomfortable, “I should go,” she said, starting to get up and wobbling slightly.

“No!” Muscle said with a bit more force, “you should stay,” he looked up at the fan, “you should go!”

“But Max,” he continued heedless of the anger growing on Muscle’s face, the way he started cracking his knuckles, and the tightening cords in his neck, “haven’t you heard what the news has been saying?”

He went over to the bartender and got the remote for the TV nearest Muscle and the nurse. While he was gone the nurse had tried to leave again but Muscle had convinced her to stay and they both had another shot.

The fan returned and the TV was changed to ESPN Infinity which focused on super level athletics, it was detailing the ULCL matches tonight and of course focusing on Muscle’s match with Samson Smash.

“Joan,” said the host addressing his co-anchor, “with tonight’s victory Smash will retire with an undefeated record.”

“Yes Kyle,” the stunning blond co-host replied, “it’s easy to see why the HCP wants him despite having potential issues with maintaining the secret identity requirements.”

“That’s for sure, if there was anyone destined to be a hero, it’s Samson Smash.”

The commentary continued but was drowned out by the fan who was suddenly right at Muscle’s face. “Max, it’s a crime what they’re doing, Smash is nothing compared to you. If they wanted a hero they would recruit you Max. You’re the best, it was pure robbery that you didn’t win tonight Max.”

He couldn’t take any more, the loss, the frustration, the anger, and the alcohol all combined into a mix that spelled nothing but trouble.

Muscle lashed out faster than the eye could follow and grabbed the fan’s collar. “Don’t… Call… Me… Max…” he said shaking the fan and enunciating each word. “And, I’m no hero!” he added and tossed the fan into the wall giving proof to his statement.

As he did it, he realized it was a really bad idea, the guy was a normal, somewhere through the drunken haze he realized he was in trouble. It wasn’t the first time but it might be the worst. There was a sickening crunch of bone as the fan impacted the wall and slumped to the ground. He was moaning Muscle noted, at least he wasn’t dead. The nurse was looking at him with a look of horror on her face, ‘so much for getting laid,’ he thought and then felt the Billy club the bartender kept for trouble makers crack over his head and splinter.

He needed to get out of here, he needed air, he needed to clear his head and sober up. That much he knew but he was too drunk to come close to doing it in a manner which didn’t cause more trouble. He stood up suddenly knocking the chair and table over and shoving the bartender into the next table. The nurse was backing away a look of pleading on her face as if to say ‘don’t kill me’.

Muscle shook his head to clear it and three bar goers jumped him. He shook them off as he tried to walk to the door. He wasn’t trying to hurt them but his fine control was gone. They went flying too. People had cell phones out, some were making calls. To the police no doubt. Others were taking video of the whole thing.

Great,’ he thought through the drunken haze, ‘just what I need. This is not the way I wanted a million hits on YouTube. I gotta get out of this place and sleep it off. Sal, Sal will know what to do’.

He headed toward the door shoving anyone who got in his way to clear a path. Unfortunately two things happened at the same time to cause even more trouble. First the bartender he knocked over tried to stop him again, this time with a Taser, second the other bartender pulled a sawed off shot gun from under the bar. Muscle didn’t even think, as the Taser started to shock him, about the equivalent of a joy buzzer to a normal person, he grabbed the bartender and threw him into the one who pulled the gun. The two crashed backward knocking down all the bottles and glasses stacked behind the bar. One of the beer taps was torn loose and beer started fountaining the whole area.

No one else was stupid enough to try to stop him. He got outside into the open air just as two motorcycles pulled up with a man and a woman in bright costumes leaping off almost before they stopped and a third man in a blue uniform with a cape landed in front of him.

The caped man spoke, “Max Malone, AKA Muscle Malone or The Muscle. You are under arrest for criminal use of variant abilities with potentially deadly force.”

Muscle looked at them shook his head again but raised his hands in surrender. ‘OK, I’m really in trouble,’ he thought as the titanium alloy cuffs closed around his wrists.

A quick trip to the local lockup for processing and he was pulled into court. Faster than he expected but super villainy was taken pretty seriously here.

He had tried to call Sal but could only leave a message with his office, so when he came before the judge there was only a public defender to speak for him.

“What are the charges?” the judge asked.

“Drunk and disorderly, criminal use of variant abilities with potentially deadly force, aggravated assault, battery. In addition damage amounting to between one hundred and two hundred thousand dollars was done to the bar in which the events happened.” The prosecuting attorney looked smug; she was also beautiful which didn’t help him concentrate given the frustration with the nurse. “In addition Your Honor, this is the third instance of such occurrences and I would ask for summary judgment under the three strikes rule for supers.”

Muscle, had been paying more attention to the prosecutors legs than what she was saying. But when she mentioned the three strikes rule he suddenly turned to the defender with something akin to shock on his face. ‘Summary judgment, three strikes rule, this sounded…

“I ask for fifteen years without parole in Sanderson Super-Max.”

“Mr. Malone, do you have anything to say for yourself, or defense to offer before I consider the prosecutor’s suggestion?” asked the judge.

“I…” he turned from the judge and looked at the defender. The lawyer who was supposed to be there for him and found him looking as confused as he felt. “Your Honor, I…”

Before he could go on he was interrupted from the back of the courtroom. “Your Honor, J. Alec Godwyn for the defendant.” An immaculately groomed man in a three-piece suit carrying a leather briefcase approached the defense table. “May I have a moment with my client?”

The judge looked at the lawyer and nodded. “Five minutes Mr. Godwyn.”

The newcomer looked at the disheveled lawyer from the public defender’s office, “you can go now,” he said dismissively. The public defender gathered his papers in an untidy pile and hurried from the courtroom looking relieved.

Muscle looked over at the new comer, “who the hell are you?” he asked quietly.

“J. Alec Godwyn, didn’t you hear? I’m your lawyer and you better be glad I am.”

“I don’t remember hiring you Mr. Godwyn.”

“Sal and the league sent me. You’ve created one hell of a PR nightmare for them. Not to mention a huge legal issue for yourself.”

Muscle looked at him and suddenly felt something he never did, even after the fight with Smash ended with him losing. He felt defeated. “Yeah I think I’m just coming to realize that.” He rubbed the left side of his face as if he had a headache. Staring up at the lawyer with one eye, “so what can I do? It sounds like I’m going to the super-max.”

“Well that’s a punishment certainly within the judge’s purview. I’m hoping to give him and you a better option.”

He took his hand away from his face looking somewhat hopeful again, “and what’s that?”

“You’re going to become a hero.” Muscle looked at him with complete disbelief on his face. “Well of sorts.”

“I’m no hero,” Muscle started to object but the lawyer waved him down.

“Your Honor,” he addressed the bench, “may we approach?”

The judge waved him over and he spoke to him quietly.

“What?” asked the judge loudly.

The lawyer continued to speak to him lower than Muscle could hear. Suddenly the judge banged his gavel. “I want Mr. Malone, prosecution, and defense in my chambers now!” then he stood and walked out.

“Well that went well,” Godwyn said confidently as he returned to the table.

“What went well?” asked Muscle.

The lawyer winked at him and motioned him to follow him to the judge’s chambers.

They entered the chambers, the judge had hung up his robe and was sitting behind a cluttered desk. “Alright,” he started, “Mr. Godwyn has an interesting proposal. I doubt the legality of it but let’s get it out there and see what it allows.” He nodded at the defense lawyer to begin.

“To put it simply, no one doubts Mr. Malone’s guilt, not even him,” he looked at Muscle with a look that said if you disagree with me on your head be it. “However what we are here to suggest is an alternative to sentencing him to jail. That will benefit no one.”

“I disagree,” interrupted the prosecutor, “it serves the people, and it serves justice. In these dark times the people need to know that criminals, especially super criminals, are prosecuted, are sentenced, and are punished.”

“Yes,” agreed Godwyn, “these dark times is exactly the point. What I suggest is in lieu of jail, Mr. Malone joins Force Ops.” Everyone except the judge looked stunned and that included Muscle himself.

Muscle tugged on Godwyn’s jacket, “can I talk to you?” he whispered.

“Not now,” Godwyn replied back also in a whisper.

“Impossible,” said the prosecutor.

“Actually, there’s a long history of military service in place of prison time,” replied Godwyn.

“Yes,” said the prosecutor snidely, “but, that hasn’t been practiced in decades, and all the branches have rules against it. Well except the Navy but it’s well established they won’t allow it.”

“Yes, very true, there are rules in place to prevent it. However, there are loop holes.” He pulled a document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.

“The regulation from the Air Force makes it clear that no enlistment will be allowed if it is in lieu of a judgment against the enlistee, if the enlistee will suffer that judgment should they not do the military service.”

“What does that matter?” asked the prosecutor, “first this is Force Ops we are discussing, not the Air Force, and Force Ops is under the Army. Second there is no way I would support this defendant being allowed military service in place of prison if there was no way to be sure the military service would be performed.”

“I would have to agree,” added the judge, “I am not about to accept a plea bargain which can’t be enforced.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” replied Godwyn, “I just think there can be a civil solution rather than a criminal one. That takes the enforcement out of the hands of the court and allows for the loophole.” He took another document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.

The judge perused the papers he was just handed, “interesting,” he said after a few minutes.

“What?” asked the prosecutor.

“This has two versions of a document from the ULCL. The first is an acknowledgement that due to the recent actions of Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone, he is suspended from the ULCL and claims from the ethics clauses in the amount of ten million dollars are hereby sought.” Muscle looked up suddenly and was about to object when Godwyn stepped on his foot.

“The second version,” continued the judge, “is an acknowledgement of the mistakes that Max, ‘The Muscle’, Malone has made and his earnest desire to make amends. It sets up a fund from Mr. Malone’s earnings to pay for damages to the injured and notes the beneficence of his actions in joining Force Ops in order to gain the discipline needed to prevent such an event from ever occurring again while helping the nation in its actions against its enemies. It also welcomes him back to the ULCL after his tour of duty is complete should he choose to return.” The judge tapped the papers together to straighten them out, “a very neat piece of work Mr. Godwyn.”

“Well Your Honor,” Godwyn replied smiling, showing immaculate teeth, “I hope you can understand why I was a few minutes late to court.”

The judge waved a hand dismissively. “Miss Connely,” he said addressing the prosecutor and handing her the sheaf of papers, “would you be amenable to this ‘plea bargain’?”

She examined the papers and thought about it. “I would be,” she said. “I don’t feel Mr. Malone is a hardened criminal like those in super-max, nor do I want to see him become one due to exposure to them. I do however want to see justice done and set an example in these trying times.” She handed back the papers, “I believe this accomplishes that nicely. However, I still see one major problem. This is a loophole, Force Ops isn’t going to take him. They don’t want people to serve instead of jail time, those are the worst possible soldiers.”

J. Alec Godwyn, always prepared it seems, took another document from his briefcase and handed it to the judge.

“This,” the judge said to the prosecutor, “is a document, signed by a Major Olivia Townsend from Force Ops recruitment accepting Mr. Malone for enlistment into Force Ops. It’s on official stationary and all it needs is Mr. Malone’s signature and a witness to make it legally binding.”

“That removes my objection,” the prosecutor said with a look of surprise on her face.

“I suppose the only thing left is to ask Mr. Malone how he feels about it.”

Muscle was about to speak when his lawyer shot him a silencing look. “A moment with my client Your Honor?”

“A short one Mr. Godwyn.”

He took Muscle off to the side, “this is your only chance Muscle,” Godwyn started before his client could say anything. “If you don’t agree to this, you are going to Sanderson, and you will be branded a super villain. In addition the ULCL will strip you of ability to fight and all your earnings not to mention what the civil suits from the bar fight will do to you.”

“I told you, I ain’t no hero.”

“Are you a villain?” Godwyn asked. “Because if you don’t agree to it, that’s exactly what everyone will think you are. It would be bad enough in normal times, but this soon after Meredith Falls…” he shook his head, “you won’t just be a villain, you’ll be a pariah.”

“But…” Muscle started.

“No buts,” Godwyn didn’t let him continue, “get over there, be humble, be apologetic, be absolutely contrite, and then agree to enlist.”

Muscle stopped, in mid-sentence, looked his lawyer in the eye, and then slowly nodded.

The two of them came back and stood in front of the judge’s desk. “Your Honor,” Muscle began, “I am truly sorry for what I did last night and what the people must think of me in this, one of the most tragic chapters in our history.” Muscle paused, ‘they might think I’m an idiot with nothing but muscle between my ears,’ he thought, ‘but that should show them, I can be eloquent and convincing when I need to be.’ He looked from the judge to the prosecutor and back, “in order to address my mistakes and make amends for what I have done I agree to the terms set forth by my lawyer and the league in the document you read. I’m ready to sign on the dotted line.”

The judge looked him in the eye. “Very well Mr. Malone. To make this official, with no prior commitment, I hereby dismiss all criminal charges pending in this matter against Max Malone, AKA The Muscle. Now Mr. Malone, if you will please sign the document provided by the ULCL and the enlistment forms from Force Ops.”

Muscle took a pen his lawyer held out to him and signed both papers. The judge signed as witness and stamped each document so no possible mistake could be made in interpreting the legality of it. He made copies of each and handed them to Muscle and Godwyn.

“My clerk will deliver the originals to the appropriate parties.” He stood and looked Muscle in the eye. “Mr. Malone, let me be the first to thank you for what you are doing for your country.” He reached out and shook Muscle’s hand. Before he let go he added, “Let me also warn you, off the record. Should you renege on this somehow, I don’t care that these charges have been dismissed. I guarantee you will pay and fifteen years in Sanderson will look like a walk in the park compared to what you will be facing.”

Muscle swallowed hard and nodded before taking back his hand. He had faced down people who could crush a tank but this judge made his knees shake.

Godwyn picked up his briefcase and walked out with Muscle. As they left the courthouse the lawyer turned to him and said, “well Mr. Malone, I wish you the best of luck. It really was the best solution you could have hoped for. Remember that.”

“What do you mean?” he asked but before he could get an answer his cell phone which he had retrieved before leaving rang. “Just a minute.”

He looked at the caller ID and saw it was Sal and he answered.

“Muscle, is everything OK? I’ve been trying to get through to you but it went right to voice mail.”

“Yeah, I’m well enough I guess.”

“What’s the status? Are you out on bail? Is there a court date?”

“No I’m out, your lawyer got me out, I don’t like the deal but… well if this is what I need to do then I can do it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The deal you guys worked out, me, Force Ops, no jail, you know?”

“Muscle what are you talking about?”

“The lawyer you sent, Godwyn, he worked it all out. Didn’t he tell you what he was going to do?”

“Muscle, what lawyer? I didn’t send a lawyer.”

Muscle nearly dropped the phone, he looked around the street, Godwyn was gone, Muscle was standing there all alone.

A Calculated Response: Chapter 5

Chapter 5:

Behind Closed Doors

 

A man in a suit walked into the vault-like room and pressed a button set next to the door. A laser from within the button scanned his finger prints while cameras and other devices recessed into the walls analyzed him in multiple other ways. “Sealing outer doors,” an artificial voice called out via a speaker in the ceiling. There was a solid booming as the steel doors slammed into place locking him in. “Beginning maximum security sweep,” added the same artificial voice. Beams of light swept across the entire room. “All occupants are verified, no additional targets known or unknown isolated. Electronic, physical, and variant level security measures are confirmed.”

Once the voice was finished and the beams ceased, he walked across the room to a single large conference table with ten chairs surrounding it. Only five of them were occupied. Three men and two women sat around the table each one of them going through papers or working furiously on tablets. The room was silent except for the shuffle of papers and the artificial click coming from the speakers of the tablets as the users typed away.

The newcomer walked to the head of the table and sat down. He was an older man, about sixty, maybe even seventy, vigorous but old. He was dressed in plain, well cut suit which was slightly out of date. As he sat he opened his jacket, pulled his tie loose to dangle around his neck rather than lay flat and undid the top button of the shirt. His face looked haggard, like he should have slept days before. After a few minutes of shuffling through papers and pulling up files on his screens, he finally broke the silence.

“OK people, how in hell did we miss this?” his voice wasn’t exactly angry, but had an underlying sadness to it, echoing with a tone of defeat, a recognition of failure.

“Harold, there was no chatter, not even the hint of something like this coming.” The response came from another man maybe five or ten years younger than Harold. He was balding with a fringe of grey hair still present, over one eye he was wearing something that looked like a Google Glass on steroids.

“I can’t believe this happened with absolutely no warning,” Harold stated pointedly.

“I’m telling you there was nothing.”

“Is this because she was… throwing a tantrum?” he asked cautiously, pausing and looking around.

“No! Don’t go blaming her,” the other man shot back obviously annoyed. “I’m telling you Harold there was nothing for her to find. It’s obviously a small group, no external communications, no large scale purchases.” He threw several different collections of printouts down on the table in front of Harold. As he slid each packet across the table toward Harold he added a comment, “no interactions with the tech markets… no interactions with the mercs… no interactions with the major villains.” He stopped throwing papers and sat down resting his head in his hands for a few seconds before continuing. “That means they’re effectively running silent.”

“Alright, alright Jesse, calm down.” Harold stretched out his hands in a reassuring motion silently telling Jesse to settle down. “If there really was nothing to find then there is no sense in going back and trying to figure out who fucked up. Well,” he added glancing around the room at everyone, “Who else has thoughts?”

A gruff voice was the first to chime in a response. Harold expected it, Daryl was always ready to give an opinion at a moment’s notice. “They’re fucking nuts,” pronounced a man who was much younger than Harold or Jesse. He was athletic and looked to be in his prime, mid to late twenties at most.   He was African American and was either prematurely bald or shaved his head. If he were asked to describe himself he would just call himself trim and toned, but his stature, his stance, and his fluid movements gave everyone else the impression of something dangerous stalking its prey. No one speaking with Daryl was ever sure if he wasn’t looking at them like they were his prey.

“Of course they’re fucking nuts Daryl,” agreed Harold in a tone telling everyone not to state the absolutely obvious, only the moderately obvious. “That doesn’t add anything to the discussion. Time is short and we need to address the imminent threat and the potential directions this group, Far From Noble, might take it?”

“So basically, we need to know four things,” added the last of the four men in the room. “Who are these nutcases who call themselves Far From Noble? What they will do next? When are they going to make their next move? And lastly what we are supposed to do about it?” he ticked each question off on the fingers of a raised hand as he said them. He was somewhere between Harold and Daryl in age, maybe thirty five or forty. If Daryl was trim and toned, this man was built like a small mountain. It wasn’t that he was tall or fat, he didn’t loom over people, but he had a solidity to him that was more than just size and strength. He practically radiated cool confidence.

“Essentially correct Caleb,” replied Harold. “The big overarching question is how are we going to figure any of that out since before today they weren’t even on our radar.”

“Listen,” said Daryl loudly, “I meant what I said, and it does actually tell us quite a lot. They’re fucking nuts. Their credo is ridiculous, it’s so self-contradictory I don’t think even the average hate filled terrorist would believe it. Their actions are so opposite their statements it would be comical if the actions weren’t so heinous. What they did and what they said doesn’t even begin to evoke any sense of belief in what they stand for.”

“So you think it’s a smoke screen?” asked Caleb.

“Yeah,” replied Daryl, “that’s exactly what I think it is. This is super powered terrorism as a cover for something else.”

Caleb shook his head and spoke again, “I don’t know Daryl, trying to put rational together with terrorism never seems to work for me. It’s entirely possible they are exactly what they say they are.”

“Maybe,” Daryl conceded though he was shaking his head no while he said it, “but I don’t buy it.”

“It’s hard to believe it’s come to this, whatever the motivation behind it. We’ve been so successful for so long at stopping all major threats of this nature.” Caleb turned his chair and looked directly at the head of the table. “You knew this was coming Harold, you predicted it the day I met you. It’s been a long time getting here but we are faced with it now. Knowing you I’m sure you have plans.”

“Knowing something is coming and knowing exactly what that something is are two very different things Caleb.” He shook his head, “No I don’t have plans. I have some ideas, but plans are what we are here to make.”

“Yeah I know about your ideas Harold. I’ve been a part of your ideas for a long time and have been dealing with their consequences almost as long. In the end, I’ll take your ideas over the best laid plans of anyone else.”

Harold nodded, “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he said to Caleb before turning back to address the entire group. “OK, how’s this for the first idea? Let’s go over what we know from the broadcast, our surveillance, the field reports, and Dispatch’s telemetry and recordings. Let’s get every last piece of data we can and then we’ll go about turning my ideas into a plan.”

There was a general buzz of agreement through the room and he continued. He ran his fingers over a digital slider set into the glass top of the table by his left hand and the lights around the room dimmed. Multiple large screens set around the room and directly into the table came to life; the dimness aiding everyone in properly viewing the images they displayed.

“OK then let’s review the opposition and what we know about the members of Far From Noble. Let’s start with the ones that the press has given names to.”

“That’s only three of them,” the first of the women in the room added as she manipulated the controls set into the table in front of her. She was probably in her late forties but only a few strands of grey mixed into her blond hair would make you think so. Her face was too stern to be called beautiful, and the tight bun her hair was in only accented that. Striking was a better word for her. She was however absolutely fit, most college girls would be jealous of her figure.

After a few seconds of fiddling, the screens brought up images from the video released by Far From Noble. After a few more seconds, three images were isolated and projected on the inset screens. She listed each one off and text indicating the names assigned them appeared beneath the pictures. “The strongman, the woman inciting the riots, and the zombie; they call them Uber, Wretched and Melt.”

“Uber? Olivia did you find any special reason they called him Uber?” asked the second woman, the last member of the group. She was younger than Olivia, early thirties and nowhere near as fit. She was prettier though, she had violet eyes, long dark hair, and a softness to her face that Olivia likely never had. It would be wrong to think she wasn’t strong though, there was something about her eyes, not just the unusual color. The way she looked at people made anyone see her strength immediately.

“Not as far as I can tell Cindy,” she put a wry grin on, “I think it was next on list of unclaimed names fitting a strongman type. There is a German hero who uses the name and might take offense. I guess the networks thought it wouldn’t be much of an issue.”

“That agrees with what I was able to turn up as well,” Cindy concurred, “thanks Olivia.”

“And Melt?” asked Caleb

“Well, for the obvious power. Mostly she seems to use it to melt flesh and create those poor victims who look like escapees from a special effects makeup lab,” she pulled up several images of her victims. “However, she also seems to do similar things to solid items as well.” A new image joined the others on display. It showed a building collapsing behind Melt as she walked out of it.”

“I was called in by this point, we couldn’t get completely ahead of this one,” Cindy added, “but at least we were able to direct them away from using any zombie references.” She used a pointer to highlight Melt’s image, “It…” she paused and corrected herself, “I mean she’s obviously a super. We don’t want the media starting a panic over the coming ‘zombie apocalypse,’ right?” She looked out at the others, each nodded in turn.

“I still can’t believe the CDC put out that damn comic book using a zombie attack to teach preparedness,” added Jesse.

“It’s more unbelievable that people thought it was a government conspiracy to prepare them for the coming zombie war,” Olivia shot back.

“That leaves five UTS’ without even a name granted by the media,” said Harold.

“UTS?” asked Jesse.

“Unidentified Terror Suspect.”

“Well, why haven’t the media named them?” he asked as he adjusted the lens on his fancy eyewear.

“Because there is nothing in the video which allows them to easily direct the naming,” responded Olivia. “It’s obvious Uber is a strongman, and Melt… well that one is obvious too. I understand that Discord was the name they originally wanted to give to Wretched, I’m really not sure how they chose the name Wretched.”

“Wasn’t there already a Discord?” interrupted Daryl, “That crazy woman who started a riot at the Washington Space Needle?”

“Yes Daryl,” Olivia replied with sarcasm in her voice, “thank you for pointing out the obvious again. I would never have added that as the reason they didn’t use that name.”

“Any chance they are the same super?” Daryl asked not looking at all apologetic.

“No Daryl,” Olivia manipulated the screens again and a mug shot appeared showing a woman standing in a white jumpsuit, the kind prisoners in a super-max wear. “She’s serving a no-parole life sentence right now and I confirmed there has been no escape or other unusual occurrences with her. Just similar power sets.”

“Alright, we are off topic. Let’s list out the others and see what we can do with them,” said Harold.

Olivia manipulated the display to focus on the image of the narrator in the sport coat. “Number one is this urbane killer and torturer. All the press is calling him so far is either the ‘spokesman for Far From Noble’ or the ‘narrator’.”

“What’s his power?” asked Jesse.

“Between the images on the video and the reports from the field, he seems to be an advanced mind with really nasty abilities.” She manipulated the display screen and several clips from the video were shown side by side. “He seems to be able to rapidly play on fears and shame and quite literally drive people mad.” Images all showed the people he approached slamming their heads into various surfaces or objects as if trying to knock themselves out and shut out the voices.

Caleb interrupted to add more information, “From Jet Black’s field report, it also seems he’s also a telekinetic. The images Pax was able to project from the survivor’s memories showed him killing the survivor’s father with TK. He used it to twist his body and tear open his neck.”

“Right,” agreed Olivia, “his telepathy is very specialized, it’s quite possible his telekinesis has specific limits as well.”

“What do you mean?” asked Daryl.

“Whatever it is he does isn’t simple telepathy. From what we gathered from Jet Black’s report, as well as the careful probing of the insane survivors by other telepaths, he seems to implant a psychic copy of himself in his victims’ minds.  That copy stays there and continues to act independently, it’s like a viper hiding and waiting to strike. It continues to manipulate the victim independently, not needing contact from the telepath, and it defends itself. One of those copies is what destroyed Braindrain’s mind. If it could do that to a trained telepath of her power, we have little hope to cure the remaining victims. About the only good news is the copies that were placed in people by those crystals seem weaker and temporary. The copy in Maximum was removed by Tantamount though it did a lot of damage while it was in him.” She paused a moment in her report and sighed. “It’s probably going to take years of counseling to get him back to something even close to normal. If we ever can.”

“Dear god!” exclaimed Jesse.

“Yeah the guy is a real sadist too, you read Tantamount’s report of what he did to Maximum, you heard from Jet Black what he did to the kid they found and to poor Braindrain. He called that a masterpiece, what he did to Pax by destroying Braindrain’s mind, he called it a study in suffering.” She paused in her speech for a few seconds, looking closely a tear could almost be seen forming in the corner of the stern faced woman’s eye. She blinked it back and cleared her throat with a cough. “Sorry,” she said breaking her sudden silence, “it still hits me hard whenever a hero is lost… feels like a failure.”

“Well I have a name for him,’ Jesse said removing his glasses for the first time and rubbing his eyes. He brushed passed Olivia’s comment ignoring it; she didn’t need pity or understanding here. “We call him De Sade.”

Olivia thought about it for a second and with a curt nod of her head she agreed, “Fitting, I’ll get it through channels to the press as soon as we’re done with the others.”

“Moving on to UTS number two,” again she manipulated the images and showed De Sade’s partner, the man in the red leather coat.

“What’s his shtick?” asked Jesse.

“If you watch the video it’s confusing,” answered Olivia while showing scenes of his attack, “people fall down and suddenly rough tears in their flesh open up. We didn’t have any of them to interview of course, to get the direct point of view.” She glanced over at Caleb and nodded for him to pick it up.

“We do have the report from Jet Black which describes the creatures they saw in the visions as well as the similar ones brought forth by Michael Ross,” Caleb added as he pulled up the PDF of Jet Black’s after action report. “What he seems to do is open a portal, through which these half visible creatures come.” Caleb took control of the screens and pulled up the images and the first segment of video showing the man in the red leather coat’s attacks. Again everyone saw the grabbing, twisting motion he would make and they could almost convince themselves he was opening a doorway. The light pulse always followed the motion and people began to die seconds after that. People who ran were clearly running from something they could see and they took longer to be affected.

“The people are acting like something from those light pulses are chasing them,” said Cindy, “But why weren’t the creatures visible on the video?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Caleb replied, “it might be the same reason no one could seem to focus on them. Maybe they don’t exist in the normal visible spectrum.”

“Maybe they’re mental constructs,” added Olivia, “only in their minds so to speak.”

“Hmmm,” mused Harold, “anyone have a suggestion for a name?”

They all looked at each other around the table, there was a titter of noise as one or more would lean to their neighbors making suggestions or asking for thoughts. Finally Cindy spoke up, “How about Hellgate?”

“Hellgate? Why Hellgate?” asked Harold.

“Well, the red motif of his outfit certainly is suggestive of devils. He seems to open portals through which come invisible demons, at least invisible to film. I seem to recall some myth about demons only being able to be seen by their victims.”

Harold nodded pensively.

“And on top of that, we can spin it pretty negatively,” she added. “He can open the gates of hell. We can speak to some production companies and plant some ideas, in a month or two we’ll see any number of films suggesting how bad things can be when the gates of hell are opened.”

“Isn’t that like playing the zombie card, you didn’t want to do that.”

“Trust me Harold,” she said defensively, “psyops is my specialty, this will work and zombies would backfire.”

“OK, OK, Hellgate then.” He looked over at Olivia.

“Right,” she said, “it’s on the list with De Sade, I’ll take care of them all at the same time, simpler that way.”

“Speaking of what was and wasn’t on the video, any idea how it was filmed?” Harold asked suddenly, turning Jesse.

“No, which means they have a technical brilliance super.”

“I’m betting on UTS number… what are we up to? Three?” he took over and made the images on screen move and focused on the man with the satchels. “Those crystals are either a creation of tech beyond anything we have seen or he somehow has the ability to contain other super powers, again something we have never seen before.”

“Someone else could have made them and he was just placing them on scene,” Daryl added.

“Yeah but most tech supers like to use their own gadgets. Plus why bring an unenhanced member into that insanity? Why have unenhanced members at all given what they are capable of?”

“Where are we with the analysis of the crystals?”

“Nowhere!” Jesse said with obvious frustration. He pulled up technical schematics, micrographs and crystal structures. “They aren’t stable. The entire molecular structure has broken down. We don’t know if that’s something that happens when they go off or it’s something to do with time, or if it’s a failsafe built into the thing.”

“OK then, next question,” Harold continued. “Why are entire sections of the video silent while others have full audio?”

He looked around the room but everyone looked as confused as he was by that and were slowly shaking their heads.

“Right, we should move on then, list it as a priority question that needs an answer.”

“Hey guys, one other thing about the filming,” interrupted a woman’s voice.

“What’s that Cindy?”

“Either the AI governing the automated filming is as sophisticated as anything we’ve ever seen before…”

“Or?” interrupted Harold.

She looked at him with something like sudden realization on her face. “Or someone was watching through the camera in real time and directing it. Some sadist was actually catching every last bit of pain and torture for ‘our viewing pleasure,’ at least that’s the way I see it.”

“Is it a connection?” Harold asked.

Cindy’s eyes defocused a bit and she slowly nodded, “Yeeess,” she said drawing out the word, “but it’s a subtle one, not sure what it means.”

Harold slowly nodded. “Given what little we know, or can deduce, about the personalities of those involved, and assuming there aren’t many more that we don’t know about.” He raised his hand and gestured for everyone to pause before they could comment. “Yes I know we can’t assume that. But for the moment, I would say it was the man in the sport coat, De Sade.”

“It would fit his personality,” Cindy agreed, but she didn’t look convinced.

“Hmm, another mystery I suppose. We’ll get there. Let’s move on for now. Do we have a name for UTS number three?” he asked the question of everyone but looked specifically at Jesse.

Jesse had a wry look on his face, “Sure, ask me why don’t you?” he shot back at Harold. “You know, sometimes I wish we never met.”

“Yeah, you say that all the time Jesse but you know it’s all bull. You love it here.”

Jesse gave ground. “OK,” he said moving past the ongoing sparing, “how about Encasement?” he looked at Cindy as he asked. “It doesn’t have any special negative connotation but it is descriptive of what I think he’s doing, encasing other people’s abilities into those crystals.”

“On the contrary,” replied Cindy, “Encasement is a great name from a negative image perspective. It’s all about how we spin it, encased…trapped. It’s got potential.” She nodded at Olivia.

Olivia nodded back and added, “It’s on the list.”

“Back to the remaining two,” Harold said nodding at Olivia again.

Olivia manipulated the images and showed two images side by side, the woman in the containment suit, and the man in the hoodie.

“Well UTS number four,” began Olivia, “is a woman. She is easily identified in the video by the suit she wears. People around her die in absolutely horrible ways. That seems to be her power.” She looked thoughtful for a second and then asked, “Is it possible she’s another tech brilliance super and the suit is something she is using to kill people?”

All eyes turned to Jesse. “I doubt it, the suit itself seems like it’s simply components from pretty standard isolation equipment. I don’t see any visible effect in the video anytime someone dies.” He paused a moment, “wait, let me clarify that, no visible effect showing a connection between the woman and the victim. Nothing to indicate the suit is doing anything.”

“So what’s going on?” asked Harold.

“If I may,” Olivia said projecting a new image of a memo. The letterhead said USAMRIID which was the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. “I have intercepted a memo from a Major Samuels over at USAMRIID. He’s a researcher there with TS/SCI clearances. He is convinced what UTS number four is doing is infecting people with various diseases and somehow allowing them to progress through them almost instantly.”

“How valid are his conclusions?”

She looked at Harold with an expression that said ‘did you really just ask me that?’ before replying. “How would I know? You know I don’t have the background to make judgments on that. However, he is a fairly senior researcher and he’s part of USAMRIID’s super division.”

“They have a super division?” asked Daryl. Everyone turned and looked at Daryl but no one actually responded.

“OK so he infects people with diseases, maybe she’s infected herself and the suit is to hold things in not keep them out.”

“Maybe,” replied Jesse, “just no way to know.”

“Alright, you know the drill, do we have a name?”

“Hmm Virulent, Pathogen, Pathos, Outbreak, Plague and Quarantine, are all known super villains already if I recall,” said Jesse.

“Yes,” agreed Cindy, “though none of them are as deadly as this one. Hmm lots of disease based villains out there,” she mused.

“How about BSL 5?”asked Jesse.

“BSL 5?”

“It’s a term used to describe the danger in a biological threat. In this case it stands for Biological Safety Level five. To give you some idea, flu and HIV are level two, Ebola is level four.”

Cindy looked at him in horror, “if Ebola is four what’s five?”

“There is no five, that’s the point. It implies she is worse than the worst diseases out there. Let’s just hope we aren’t being prophetic.”

“Hmm, I can work with it, there will need to be some carefully worded news bits, articles, maybe even advertisements but we can make it work for us.”

“Four down, one to go,” Olivia said as she added BSL 5 to the list. “What about the man in the hoodie?” She focused the screen on the last of the members of Far From Noble.

“What are his powers?” asked Harold.

“Hard to say for certain,” replied Olivia, “he mostly avoided contact with anyone. He may be forced into the situation somehow or may have very limited use powers. We only saw him do anything once.” She replayed the portion of the video where the man in the hoodie literally shattered a townsperson who was about to attack him.

“So something like Shatter or Petrify? That’s what it seems he did.”

Jesse manipulated the image on screen and focused in on the pieces of the person after he shattered. “Actually I don’t think that’s what he did at all. I’m not positive of course, but image enhancement and analysis seems to show the pieces were covered with frost for a fraction of a second after his victim shattered and the remains then defrosted and turned back to so much dead person parts. I think his powers are cold based.”

“You think they are cold based?” Harold said putting some significant doubt into the question.

“If she were cooperating we might know more but…” he looked hopefully at Harold.

“Later,” replied Harold not allowing him to change the subject. “We need a name for UTS number five, how about Deep Freeze?”

“Taken.”

“Flash Freeze?”

“Taken.”

“Frostbite?”

“Taken.”

“How about Freezer Burn or Ice Age?”

“Both taken”

“I seem to recall a hero named Glacier, how about Permafrost, Icicle or Blizzard?”

“Yes there still is an active hero named Glacier, he’s a legacy actually, the other three are taken.”

“How about Absolute Zero?” Caleb asked.

“Actually Dean Jefferies grabbed the rights to that one years ago, I think he didn’t want anyone else taking it all things considered.”

“Yeah that makes sense,” Caleb nodded.

Harold was looking particularly frustrated, “Olivia, do you have any suggestions that aren’t taken?”

“The database lists the following as the top free names related to cold powers. Snowflake, Snowball, Flurry, and Coldsleep.”

“The first three are too innocent sounding,” commented Cindy; “sends the wrong message. Coldsleep is neutral but I’ll see what we can do about spinning it badly.”

“Coldsleep then and that finishes naming them,” Olivia agreed as she typed the name out. “That finishes naming them.”

“All right, let’s talk about the explosion itself,” Harold changed the subject. “How strong was it and was there anything other than your typical explosive force in it?”

Jesse took over at this point and tapped the side of his glasses which caused it to project an aerial view of the Meredith Falls crater in three dimensions over the table.

“Nice gadget,” commented Caleb in a slightly mocking tone. He’d been telling Jesse he was too dependent on technology since they met more years ago than he wanted to count. He smiled inwardly remembering that Caleb thought the Smith and Wesson model 19 was the pinnacle of technology.

Jesse continued without giving any outward response to Caleb. “It was probably about as powerful as a small nuke, say between one and five megatons,” as he said that mathematical formulae appeared in midair next to the projection. “It’s hard to get an exact figure due to too many unknowns. These calculations are based on the size and depth of the crater it made and the damage to the buildings. Only a relatively small number of people managed to survive. All of them except Michael Ross were in basements or sub-basements protected from the blast. He was inside an SUV on the edge of the town and we theorize his emergent power somehow protected him as well; though we aren’t sure how. All of the survivors, including Michael, were previously damaged in one way or another by the terrorists.”

“The blast registered 5.5 on the Richter scale and aftershocks are still being felt throughout the Midwest, that area being tectonically active. It wasn’t nuclear, there is no sign of fallout or higher levels of radiation, there is no chemical residue, there is no anything abnormal left behind. Only…”

“Only what?”

“Only there were no corpses left behind either. Didn’t any of you notice, the thing missing from all the films and reports, there are almost no dead bodies, just some that died after the bomb went off.”

“Were they vaporized? Did the blast dissolve organics? Did they feed the explosion?” Harold asked several questions one after the other, nearly tripping on his own tongue.

“We just don’t know. It’s so abnormal that they weren’t there that everyone completely missed the fact that they weren’t there up till now.” He looked up at Harold standing by his chair at the head of the table, “Even you missed it and you don’t miss much.”

“No one is left behind to bury and give the victims’ families closure.” He drummed his fingers on the table, an old nervous habit, “it’s an old tactic, taking the bodies of your victims so as to leave it a mystery who killed them and how it happened. It’s unnerving, which is something we can’t afford to let happen to us.”

“Well that’s about all we know about the bomb so far.”

Caleb interjected a question at this point. “So did Encasement create the coffin bomb as well? Or was it Coldsleep and we were wrong about the powers, that could explain why he was simply following along. Or was it someone else entirely?”

“It wasn’t a bomb Caleb.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t a bomb Harold?” He shot back with disbelief. “Of course it was a bomb look at what it did.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he glanced off to the side nodding his head to indicate a door leading out of the room. “She gave me an analysis and calculation this morning.”

“I thought she wasn’t cooperating.”

“She called me in after the broadcast,” he looked almost embarrassed, “she’s cooperating again… for now. And… well we’ve come to an understanding.”

“I’d like to hear about that,” said Jesse.

“No you wouldn’t, and I don’t want to discuss it. Even if I did, we don’t have the time.”

“Make the time.”

“No!” he shot back with a vehemence he almost never showed. “I said I don’t want to discuss it Jesse and I meant exactly that. I said we don’t have the time and I meant that as well.” He hit an icon blinking in the corner of the display and a new window opened up showing an enhanced picture of the coffin, a single frame caught as the coffin opened and before the light from the explosion registered.

Inside the coffin was not a bomb, it was not a device of any kind. Inside the coffin was what you would expect to find in coffins, a body. This one was male, Hispanic, and their face was locked in a grimace of pain, eyes closed tight against it.

“How do the media not have this?” asked Cindy.

“I told you, she did the analysis. Do you think anyone can match her?”

“Hmmm, alright so the bomb is a man, a super obviously and they are hiding it. But why? What about the coffin? What’s the point of that?” Her eyes defocused again but she quickly cleared and said “no,” as she shook her head, “nothing.”

Harold went on once he had her full attention again. “Maybe it’s as simple as misdirection to hide what caused the destruction. Or maybe it has another function. An amplifier perhaps? Or maybe a containment system? We would just be guessing, but clearly he was the source of the huge damage to the town.”

“There aren’t many documented supers who could pump out that much damage. He’s at least Manhattan class, if not Armageddon class.”

Daryl suddenly joined into the conversation. “The man in the coffin. We are calling him WMD,” he chuckled briefly, “at least no one can deny he exists this time.”

“Fine,” agreed Harold, “but we aren’t releasing this information to the public, at least not now.”

“Of course, it would probably start even more of a panic,” agreed Daryl. “But you have to see the irony of knowing there’s a WMD out there and this time we’re the ones hiding it.”

Harold did crack a smile at that but went on seriously. “Ironic yes,” he agreed, “necessary absolutely,” he added on.

“Yes,” said Cindy conveying her agreement as well, “this would start a new panic, a super who is a living bomb capable of leveling towns, maybe cities. You bet that would start a panic. Of course that just makes me wonder one thing. Why didn’t they let us see this on the video? It seems that would serve their purpose well.”

“Good question. Let’s pause here and summarize, shall we?”

“At least nine supers or powereds including the one in the coffin. Probably at least one or two others we don’t know about including a transporter.”

Everyone indicated their general agreement.

“The statement of their credo is probably not truly reflective of their motives. I think we all agree on that except possibly Caleb?”

“I’ll pass on that for now,” said Caleb, “but don’t completely discount the possibility that they are simply deluded zealots.”

“Fine. Moving on, we have names assigned to all of them now and Cindy is going to work her psyops magic with the media and have them all demonized even more than they are now.”

“No problem Harold,” agreed Cindy, “they made my job pretty easy.”

“Be sure to have them stress that Melt is not a zombie. Let them tell everyone that image is being done for show and to play on the fears of some of the populace that the zombie apocalypse is actually coming. Tell them that the analysis indicates she is sort of healer and self-healer who has warped the use of the power.”

“And after that do you want to teach me to tie my shoes Harold?” she asked sarcastically. “I know my job, just let me do it.”

“Sorry Cindy… it’s been stressful.” She looked over at him with surprise. Admitting his weakness like that, even in such a minor way, more than anything else made everyone in the room worry about him.

“Does it strike anyone else that there is something we are missing here?” Caleb asked, pulling the attention away from Harold’s exhaustion.

“Yes,” replied Jesse, Olivia, and Cindy all at the same time.

“I just wish we had some idea what it was,” Olivia continued answering for all of them.

“Let’s discuss the second half of the tape, maybe something will come out of that,” Harold nodded at Olivia to bring up some of the images.

The first image displayed was the crystal sphere that Maximum picked up.

“Looks innocent enough,” said Jesse, “but that thing is a power containment system.” He looked out over the others faces and it was clear some of them immediately understood him and others didn’t. “Basically it gets charged with the effect of some super’s power and releases it at a later time. In the case of this sphere the power was De Sade’s and it put one of his psi-clones into Maximum and drove him mad, causing him to attack his teammates.”

“Has anyone ever been able to do something like that before?” asked Harold.

“Several tech brilliance supers have created batteries of various types which store the energy produced by different supers but it has always been an improved battery which happens to take energy from an unusual source. Functionally they have been no different from a car battery. No one has ever stored a super power. No one has even come up with a theory of how to store telepathy. We can’t even understand how it works let alone how to artificially store it or duplicate it.”

“Wasn’t there some recent progress in that?” asked Cindy. “I seem to recall something out of Lander from Professor Stone, about one of the students altering themselves to be immune to telepathy?”

“Yeah there were some notes we managed to get copies of. It has no relationship, ultimately it’s one super’s power against another. All bets are off when something like that happens.”

“Anything else we need to know from this point?” asked Harold returning to the original point.

“Well the color of the crystal seems to indicate the power stored in it. This one,” he highlighted the crystal in Maximum’s hand on the screen, “was green.” He pulled up a series of images showing spheres from later in the video and highlighting each one in turn. “Orange spheres contained whatever Hellgate summons, blue spheres release the effect of Melt’s power, white crystals are from Coldsleep, yellow crystals are from Wretched and cause people to attack everything around them, and lastly red crystals contain WMD’s power and explode.” The last image showed Rasa killed under collapsing rubble when he found a red crystal.

“Alright, let’s move on,” instructed Harold.

The video moved forward and Harold made it pause when Marina approached Tantamount. “What was it the psychic whispered to Tantamount? I’m sure Dispatch picked it up.”

“Details of his life,” replied Olivia, “his real name, things about his family, and where he left the DVD of ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ that he’s been looking for apparently.”

“Interesting. I assume at that point he used his power to determine she was actually a super?”

“Yes it’s all in his report.”

“How is she doing?”

“I hear that HOPE has taken over her care, reports indicate that Vaykay is working with her.”

“Vaykay? I don’t remember that one.”

“He doesn’t go into the field much, mostly concentrates on keeping the members of HOPE sane and capable.”

“How?” he asked looking confused.

“His power is to take you to ‘your happy place’ apparently it aids in mental relief and recovery.”

He suddenly looked hopeful and started to ask a question.

“Before you ask, he already tried to work with both Braindrain and Maximum and wasn’t able to help either. Pax refused his aid saying he didn’t want to go to a happy place.”

“Anyway,” she continued, “they expect she will make a full recovery. She was overwhelmed by the images her own power showed her. She wasn’t a victim of an attack.”

“So the ‘psychic’ will be as sane as ever?” Daryl asked his voice dripping with more sarcasm than even he normally used. “She didn’t feel special enough being a super, she has to be a ‘psychic’. Some people.”

“Shut up Daryl,” said Olivia with a bit of actual anger in her voice. “In the past she might have been burned at the stake as a witch. She wants to believe she’s a psychic instead of having an advanced mind power, then who the hell cares?”

They went through the remainder of the video and catalogued all the uses of spheres.

“So,” Harold said when the play through was complete, “they caught us with our pants down. No one ever even engaged a single member of their group, they just used trickery and deception with some very special traps to kill and maim some great men and women.”

“That’s about the size of it,” replied Olivia and a murmur of agreement filled the room.

“Cindy, based on what we know, in a straight out fight how hard would they be to beat?”

Cindy’s eyes defocused again this time for a full minute. When she came back she took a deep breath before responding. “You know the less information I have the less accurate I am but in a straight out fight, assuming WMD can be neutralized quickly and a healer capable of dealing with high level infectious agents is present, they don’t stand a chance. They’re powerful and deadly, but no more so than any number of super villains, and they’re a damn sight less dangerous than most rogue heroes.”

“That’s good but as of now it’s also information that doesn’t leave this group.” The others all looked at him skeptically. “Like you said Cindy, it’s of questionable accuracy. Given the death toll I think it’s safe to assume they are much worse than you think.”

“All right…” she said hesitantly.

“You wanted a plan? So here it is. We push through a new Patriot Act to cover acts of super powered terrorism, we get on top of this thing now and we, meaning our group, takes charge of it.”

The room erupted in objections, “We couldn’t push the bill through as part of the Patriot Act after 9/11;” and “That’s crazy no one would ever go for it;” and “We’d need clearance to work domestically that’s the purview of the certified heroes, we’d never get away with it;” and “It’s a PR nightmare, the press would eat it up, the anti-super groups would have a field day;” and lastly “You know this all depends on us working behind the scenes, look at the problems we’ve had when small parts of it have been exposed in the past.” Five voices, five separate reasons it would never work.

“Alright objections noted, now let’s deal with them.”

He turned to Olivia and said, “Yes, we couldn’t get a super clause into the original Patriot Act, but there was no super activity involved on 9/11, this time no one can dispute the level of super involvement in terrorist activity. And don’t forget they used that clown group to deal with some of the issues that did come up then. We all know how well that worked out; their leader is what number on the DVA’s most wanted list?”

“They weren’t clowns,” Olivia shot back.

Harold just waved her off. “Sarcasm is lost on you sometimes Olivia.”

Then he faced Daryl and added, “Daryl, you always object to everything, the fact of the matter is the country is scared right now, and with good reason. Trust me they’ll go for it and if we don’t put some limits in they’ll go for way too much. We will be the break on this, uncontrolled we are only two years from full super registration and controls you wouldn’t believe were allowed in America.”

Before Daryl could object to what Harold said, Cindy’s voice added in, “I can see that happening.” Daryl fell silent his mouth half open to reply.

He spun to face Caleb, “Yes, we need clearance to work domestically. Well not for us, for the counter-terrorism unit we are going to put together. We will get it. I happened to bump into Senator Robertson’s mistress this morning on line at the coffee shop. We sat and had some dark roast while yet another newscast about Meredith Falls was playing on the television. She just happened to mention that he is looking for a solution to the problem. I may have mentioned the idea of a super counter-terrorist group to her.”

“Senator Robertson, if any of you don’t remember, is in charge of Senate Committee on Variant Affairs who the DVA reports to. If can’t push the bill through alone, well I was walking through the mall after my coffee klatch and stopped for lunch at my favorite food cart, I sat down with Senator Wade and Senator Torres.”

“Unbelievable,” said Caleb, “still pulling this stuff out of your ass. The chairman of the Armed Forces subcommittee on Emerging Threats and the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee happen to be having lunch together and you happened to sit down with them.”

“Well,” Harold added slightly embarrassed, “Senator Wade might have turned and spilled hot sauce all over my jacket and they bought me lunch as a gesture of apology. It may have cost me a suit but it did give me a chance to plant some ideas with them as well. Put that together with our normal contacts in their offices and I think we can push this through.”

“We need to be careful in what we do with those committees,” Olivia said strongly, “after that whole oversight issue with Overton one wrong move will get us pounced on.”

“We did what we could to help there. Our behind the scenes actions there were never noticed. We’ve been doing this for a lot of years before you joined us Olivia, in the time since you came in have you ever seen as blunder in our dealings with the government?”

“Let’s see,” he said ignoring Olivia’s muttered curses, “that brings us to your objections Cindy,” he spun his chair around full circle before coming to rest facing Cindy, he was having fun with this now. “I hereby place dealing with the press and the PR in your capable hands. It was there anyway but I’m just reminding you that we trust you with this.”

“And last but not least,” his final spin brought him facing his oldest friend, “Jesse. We stay behind the scenes, though some, well most of us will have a public role, it won’t be running this thing. I have the public face already picked out.”

“Who?” shouted five voices at once.

“Colonel Anthony Wright.”

“Yes. Good. Very good,” exclaimed Cindy. “But…”

“Don’t worry Cindy,” Harold stopped her, “within the next week he will be General Anthony Wright.”

“What will General Glenn think of that?”

“Actually…”

“Wait,” shouted Caleb, “let me guess. You bumped into him filling up your gas tank and he mentioned how this would fit right in with his plans for Force Ops?”

Harold look dejected for a moment, “his wife Danielle and it was at the super market.”

“I’ll get it one of these days Harold.”

“Keep trying Caleb,” he said while laughing. It actually brought a chuckle to all of them and relieved some of the tension that had been mounting since he sealed them in.

“Olivia, Daryl, the two of you are already positioned for this. We can move Jesse, Caleb, and Cindy into place fairly quickly.”

Olivia looked up having just finished typing something into her tablet. “Covers and orders are already created for them Harold,” she added. “What about you?”

“No,” he said considering it, “I better stay loose and flexible for now. I’ll also stay in touch with the others and be able to coordinate all the efforts better if I’m not directly involved with this.” He looked right at Olivia and her skeptical stare, “at least for now,” he added and she nodded.

“Right, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what we are going to build.” Harold sent a large document to all their tablets. “Obviously we are going through Force Ops to do this, we need to create something new though, something from scratch.” He nodded toward Cindy, “I’ve had Cindy reviewing all the enlistment records for Force Ops of anyone signed up but not yet in training. She’s putting together the team from those.” He gestured to her and she stood tablet in hand.

As she tapped and swiped, lists appeared on the main screen and some names highlighted and others struck through. “There are a number of high potential recruits already signed up and there’s definitely been an uptick in attempts to enlist to Force Ops since Meredith Falls. However as you all probably know the decision was made to shut down enlistment to let people’s passion cool down so they can make a more rational decision of whether to join up.”

Olivia looked down and shook her head slightly as Cindy added that fact.

“The moratorium on enlistment will end tomorrow, we already put that into play. I don’t think the shutdown hurt us much, if at all.”

“Cindy,” Daryl interrupted, “I hate to break it to you, but the overall power levels of Force Ops tend to be much lower than the average HCP freshman class, let alone the graduating heroes. What is it you are trying to build?”

“Don’t worry so much Daryl. First, what I’m doing isn’t about putting together the most powerful group, it’s about putting together the group that fits the job. Second, the overall power levels of supers currently enlisting are higher. There are still a fair number of powereds mixed in with the supers but even those tend to be more, shall we say, applicable.  Most of them we can work with.  But it’s still not going to be enough for what we need yet.”

Cindy cleared her throat before continuing, there were small spots of color visible on her cheeks. “Well we’ve already helped out recruitment here and there,” she said slightly embarrassed.

“Cindy are you keeping secrets again?” Harold asked admonishing her.

“No Harold, this is the first time I’ve had to talk to you about it,” she said defensively, the color in her cheeks disappearing and a bit more assertiveness appearing in her voice. “You already knew I was monitoring activity in recruitment stations and after action reports from heroes. Well in two cases I found people who fit,” she put particular emphasis on the last word.

“OK, who, and what did you do?”

“Well the first is a no brainer,” she said smiling and bringing up a file for everyone to see, “Kenny York, son of Adamant and Glass, accepted as one of the top five picks at every HCP in the country, and scheduled to start at Lander this coming session. Well he decided he wanted to join up instead.”

“That’s fantastic,” Jesse shouted, “according to the application reviews from the HCP he’s already Manhattan class and his power is still maturing.”

“Cindy,” Harold interrupted Jesse’s enthusiasm, “you said he decided he wanted to join up, what did you do?” he asked pointedly.

“Well there was a bit of an issue at the recruitment post. You know the orders, no recruitment in the immediate forty-eight hours following the disaster. Well they were enforcing those orders and Kenny was probably going to end up not enlisting for stupid reasons.”

“Cindy,” Harold chided.

“Alright for family reasons,” she stuck her tongue out at Harold, “happy?”

“Go on.”

“So I called the recruitment office and rescinded the order from General Glenn’s office.”

“You what?” Harold nearly shouted.

“Oh please Harold, our mandate easily gives us the power to do that.”

“Yes but… this needs to still be handled subtlety. This disaster doesn’t mean we come out in the open. We still only work when no one actually believes we exist.”

“I’m not stupid Harold,” she said with just a slight chill in her voice, “this is my specialty.”

“No,” he relented, “no you’re not stupid. So what did you do?”

“It’s all very legit and completely untraceable. Don’t worry so much Harold, you’ll give yourself a heart attack and then what?”

“You know my heart is just fine,” he paused a second before continuing. “You said the first was a no brainer,” he looked at her pointedly again like she was caught with her hand in the cookie jar, “what about the second?”

“Well the second you may have some more issue with. But before you argue, he’s a perfect fit, just needs a few rough edges sanded down.”

“Cindy,” Harold said like they’ve been through these discussions before, “who?”

She cleared her throat, “Max, ‘the Muscle’, Malone.”

“Max Malone!” he shouted in disbelief, “Are you fucking out of your mind?”

Cindy just stood there and let Harold rant.

“He has a history of borderline criminal behavior already and he was just arrested for demolishing a bar and nearly killing some poor fan of his.”

“Are you done?”

“Not by half, he…”

“Oh shut up Harold.” Cindy said exasperated. “Stop micromanaging and pay attention. He’s a fit, that’s what’s important. Yes he has problems. Yes he’s a drunk. Yes he needs discipline. Can you think of a better place for him to get it and to keep him away from alcohol at the same time?”

“How did you get him?”

“It was the bar fight, I sent Godwyn and made him an offer. He preferred Force Ops to Sanderson.”

“But…”

“I told you stop micromanaging, it’s fine. We have the lawyer to blame it on. All of the documents used to arrange it have mysteriously disappeared from court records. It’s a done deal.”

Harold signed, admitting defeat and suddenly looking even more tired. Everyone looked at him with concern, it was easy to forget how old he was.

“Harold,” Jesse said delicately, “maybe we should pick this up after you get some sleep?”

Harold shook his head. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead Jesse. Hopefully that won’t be too soon. What about the rest of it Cindy?” he asked. “Can you put together what we need?”

“Well as I said numbers and power levels still aren’t quite enough to fill the roster we need.” She hesitated and added, “And there’s another more specific issue. Even though both recruitment and power levels of the recruits are up, we have some serious holes in the roster beyond just numbers. The most significant one is we have no recruits who are healers.”

“Well,” answered Harold with resignation, “then I guess we need some new recruitment strategies.”

“Cindy, I’m activating contingency plan seventeen alpha and I’m assigning Prime to you in order to carry it out.” She looks shocked but nods her head in agreement. “Will that fill some of the holes?”

“Theoretically it will fill two major ones, in addition to covering the contingency it was designed for.” Her voice was solemn, even grave, “But Harold, I…”

“No, we aren’t getting into it now.” He looked around at the concern on everyone’s face, “I said no and that’s final.”

“Now as for healing, it’s time to bring Dr. Nichols into this. He can help with finding some healers.”

“Alright,” agreed Cindy, “that will certainly help.”

“Cindy,” he said thoughtfully, “send Maven to speak to Major Samuels.”

“Hmm,” replied Cindy, “that’s a major change to the factors. I’ll need some time to see what it leads to.”

“Don’t bother yet, there’s one more thing.”

“Oh boy.”

“I told you that she and I have come to an understanding.”

“Yeah,” she answered with concern in her voice.

“Well she will have a list of targets for you, for all of us really. It should help but I need you to work directly with her.”

“Harold,” she said pleadingly, “you know the kind of problems that’s caused in the past.”

“Just do it anyway,” he said firmly but then he looked directly at her and his voice softened. “Cindy, we need you to do this. She can identify candidates but only you can tell if they fit. I know it’s a lot to ask but… we need this.”

Her eyes defocused again before she answered. “Yes Harold,” she said resignedly, “yes we do.”

“Alright, the plans are in motion. We all have our assignments.”

“What are you going to do Harold?” asked Caleb.

“What do you think I’m going to do Caleb? First I’m going home and getting a good night’s sleep. I really am going to be worthless if I don’t.” As if to punctuate his statement he yawned loudly. “Then when I wake up, well I’m going to take a walk.”

“Yeah, that’s about what I figured.” Caleb said then hesitantly added, “Want me to come with?”

“No Caleb, it wouldn’t help.”

He looked out at his team, all exhausted, but all giving everything they had and more. They knew what truly mattered in this world, that’s why they worked with him. He addressed them all again as he gathered his papers and began the process of unsealing the room.

“We need to be both reactive and proactive here everyone. We were caught with our pants down on this and we can’t afford for that to happen again.”

As if responding to a cue, Olivia’s voice rang out with “Oh my god!”

“What?” echoed around the room from five other voices.

“Sorry, it’s time to be reactive again,” she answered frowning. “I’m getting reports that at least thirteen members of Congress had crystal spheres delivered to their offices. Routine and enhanced screening of packages didn’t detect them. Numerous dead, large amounts of damage. Senator Robertson’s office was one of them. Injury reports coming in now…”

A Calculated Response: Chapter 6

Chapter 6:

Recruitment strategies

 

Cindy sniffed the air, the scent was the clean fresh smell of pine, the breeze was cool and crisp this high in the mountains. The sun was setting and red light stretched across the open space between the tree line and the log cabin built up against the cliff face in what looked like a natural hollow.  To be fair log cabin was a poor description. This exact home had been featured on one of those travelogue shows that people watch, the inheritors of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  Cindy couldn’t even guess how many millions of dollars this home cost to build. It was the height of decadence hidden under the rustic look of logs so large it took a construction team using strongmen and telekinetics to place them. The hollow in which the log fortress lay was nestled with streams, private pools, and sculptured gardens made to look like they just grew there. The plants representing all six continents where you could find plants was a dead giveaway that it was anything but natural. ‘And of course there are probably many millions more on defenses and security systems that we can’t see’, thought Cindy.

“We are ready to go,” said a woman coming up silently behind Cindy. She turned to look at her, she was clad head to toe in a black body suit, not even her eyes were visible, only her voice and her shape even let Cindy know it was a woman who addressed her. Behind her stood four others, two men and two women dressed identically, other than differences in their heights and their sexes there was only one distinguishing feature. Each one wore a small pip at their collar with the roman numerals I through V on them.

“Well then,” replied Cindy, “let’s make sure everything else is in place.”

Cindy and the five black clad figures walked back into the trees quickly losing sight of the building. In a small clearing several men in camouflage fatigues and helmets were monitoring some exotic looking electronic equipment. Cindy herself was dressed similarly though not wearing a helmet. They walked up to one of the soldiers who seemed to be in charge, “Captain,” she interrupted. He turned and seeing her saluted quickly. As he dropped his arm, a red and white shoulder patch was clearly visible, it showed a castle over which was seen a wire outline globe.

“Yes ma’am!”

She groaned inwardly. She was not used to all this saluting and formality, but knew she had a part to play. She could play it as well as anyone. “Is everything ready?”

“Yes ma’am, the interdiction field can go up as soon as you give the word.”

“And how long will we have?”

“Once activated no more than ten or fifteen minutes and the more extreme the force applied to it the shorter that will be. Given the parameters we were led to expect, I wouldn’t go much past five.”

“Number one,” she started turning back to the faceless figure, “will that be enough time?”

“Yes it will,” she acknowledged with no formality and making no mention of rank.

“Alright then, as soon as your team is ready to go, signal and we begin.”

The five figures tapped their insignia and the black outfits began to blur slightly, now they were no longer black but blended into the background. ‘Personal stealth suits, interdiction fields, Jesse and crew have outdone themselves’, she thought, ‘I just hope it’s all enough’.

After less than a minute a green light blinked on the main console. “They’re ready ma’am,” said a soldier manning the console.

“Activate,” said Cindy.

“The interdiction field is up.”

Good luck’, thought Cindy, ‘you’re going to need it no matter how cocky you are’.

 

Three floors beneath the log cabin, in a part of the complex that was never detailed on the TV show, alarms began to sound. A man and woman stood in front of a panel of monitors each showing a different scene around the home. Several were focused on the outside. The largest monitor was placed centrally and showed an image of their front door. It was no longer there. It wasn’t until an explosion tore it off the frame that the alarms had sounded.

“How did they get past the detection grid?” the man asked.

“I don’t know,” answered the woman. “But passive defensives have engaged. That should stop them quickly.”

The two of them manipulated controls and were scanning different areas. As their hands flew over the touch screens the simple matching gold rings each one wore were clearly visible. He suddenly pointed at a screen focused on an outdoor scene. Cindy and her soldiers with their machinery were visible in the muted colors of a low light camera. “There!” he shouted, “god damn soldiers. What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know that either,” she replied with frustration. Her screens were focused on the stairs which led down to the sub-basements. She could see a blurred group of five individuals on the screen, the area they stood in was disheveled, filled with wreckage of expensive furniture, art, and other decorative items. Not to mention the expended bean bags, electro-nets, capture foam, and other assorted defenses that they seem to have come through without being slowed.

She looked up at her husband, she always got lost in his blue eyes and dark curls. She shook herself out of the reverie and said “Whatever this is, it’s not a rival or a robbery so it’s time to pull out. Give this place up as lost and let’s retreat to zone five.”

“Agreed,” said her husband gripping her shoulder. He looked deep in her eyes, the liquid green pools he fell in love with framed by a wealth of blue black hair any model would kill for. “Here we go love,” he said.

The two of them seemed to fold in on themselves for a second, as if turning two dimensional and then folding down as if someone were crumpling a picture of them into a small ball. Then suddenly they were back to normal, gasping for breath and obviously in pain.

“Wha… what… happened…” gasped the woman, straining for air.

Her husband didn’t seem quite as affected but he was still obviously shaken. “It’s my turn to say I don’t know Vicky. Everything was fine but then it was like I hit a wall.”

She steadied herself at the console and pointed to the view of Cindy’s team in the woods. “It has to be them, whatever that equipment it. Why didn’t we see them before? They had to have taken time to set all that up.”

Her husband didn’t respond. Instead, he winked out again but this time disappeared before reappearing right next to her. “I can still move around within the house,” he said, “and like I said, there is some kind of barrier but I think I can tear it down if I have enough time.” He pointed at the monitor where the five assailants were now coming down a straight hallway laden with booby traps and the monitor suddenly enlarged to five times its previous size, the monitors on either side of it bending and twisting to allow it to grow. “And there doesn’t seem to be a problem with folding in general, just moving across the folds.” He took a second to glance up at the progress of the five invaders on the monitor; they had made it past gas jets and an electrified floor halfway down a hallway laden with enough traps to stop a hundred men. “They are heading straight at us. I can keep trying to get through the block but we have to slow them down more.”

“My turn then,” his wife said and reached into a cabinet under the screens and pulled out a belt connected with cables to a pair of gloves and a pair of goggles. She donned them quickly, her eyes no longer visible behind the exotic face wear, she then began making motions in the air with her hands.

On the screens the traps and how they reacted to the five began to change. Belt fed guns dropped from the ceilings and took rapid aim at each of them and quickly began to fire. The five suddenly were in motion each moving perfectly to avoid the bullets coming directly at them. Despite rapid tracking by the cannons, not a single bullet hit.

“That’s impossible,” shouted the woman in the gloves. Those shots were dead on target, each and every one. There was no way they could avoid them like that.

The shooting continued until one of the black shrouded figures pulled his guns and, while moving to avoid the spray of bullets, shot out each gun’s gimbal letting them drop suddenly to the floor.

“How in the hell?” asked the woman even as she waved her arms bringing out new implements designed to impede or capture the intruders.

“Something is going on here, I feel some resonance I can’t explain,” her husband answered the rhetorical question.

“Great, so they’re supers, just great. Let’s see what we are dealing with, those suits need to go.” She moved her left index finger as if sliding a lever and suddenly the floor where the blurred figures stood began to spark with electricity. She hoped it would knock them all unconscious but she knew it should short out whatever was causing the blur effect. On screen, all five individuals jumped at once and were no longer in contact with the floor when the jolt of electricity stuck the area. “Damn it,” she swore, “alright see if you can deal with this?”

As she spoke she moved her index finger again but this time held it there. On screen the sparking started again but this time continued for a full twenty seconds before stopping. The figures leapt again but came down while the electricity was still flowing. Their images on camera wavered and then came clear, their black suits truly visible for the first time. The glove she used to manipulate the field suddenly sparked and she clenched her hand in pain. Her husband looked over at her with concern etched on his face. “I’m alright, had to overload the system to do that. The Taser systems in the hall are fried now and I got some feedback, no worries.”

She glanced back at the monitors, “OK time for some concentration.” She scanned over the five of them and froze when she looked at the one wearing the II on his insignia. “That one,” she pointed at him on the screen, “he’s the lynchpin. Take out that one and they all fall.” As they watched over the five each one in turn became blurry again as if the damage she did was never there. The hallway was still half destroyed and a quick check told her that her systems were still fried, but the figures now looked untouched.

“OK,” her husband said as he glanced at the screen again, “I don’t care what you can fix, it’s infinite stairways for you.”

The figure on screen seemed to twist and fall shrinking as if moving into the distance and then he was gone. But before either of them could react he was suddenly there again. “OK I felt that one,” he said, “he suddenly vanished from the stairs and was back where he started from. I don’t know how they did it.”

“I don’t think it matters, we are going to need to get out of here. The only other choice is to retreat into the dungeon and hope we can outplay them.”

“That’s why we have it,” he said with resignation, “I’d rather run too but I won’t have whatever that thing is blocking me down before they reach the room.”

“In the dungeon we can play keep away until you can get through the barrier. Then we disappear and start planning for the next time they come after us. I have some ideas what to do. I just don’t have what I need to implement it now. This is a potent group, combined well, they overlap the weaknesses so no one move can take them out.”

“Great so they almost negate you.” As they spoke, they were moving through a thick steel door set behind the monitors. The woman was still using the gloves to activate and control defenses but it was barely slowing the five.

“Both of us actually. It’s almost like someone put this group together to be our antithesis.” She shook her head, “I don’t think that’s it I think someone just put together the perfect strike force which happens to be devastating against us.”

“To make the dungeon ploy work I’m going to have to split my focus. It’s going to slow down my ability to break through the barrier.”

“Can’t be helped, if you focused on the barrier I estimate you will break through in four more minutes. If we can’t slow them, they will get to us in three. Once directly engaged, it’s still anyone’s game.

 

By the time the five came through the monitor room, everything was set. Their enemies moved through the steel door and were confronted with the impossible. The area was huge and seemed to float in the middle of open space. The hallway that led from the door branched more times than they could count and the branches angled off in odd ways, some twisting and heading vertically and others folding over on themselves to go first one way then another. There were stairways as well that led off into odd directions and paths that defied the laws of physics. And above it all the couple stood upside down to the point of view of the group that was after them.

The couple was no longer wearing the ordinary clothes they were when the attack began and she had shed the gloves and goggles somewhere along the way. Now he was in an outfit made of unusual interlocking armor plates, a tessellating pattern that made the eyes water. She was in a sleek outfit, similar in many ways to what her attackers were wearing though without the stealth field, one look at her made it obvious that she didn’t need it. She wore different gloves now, these had sharp metal claws on each finger and ridged ribbing that went up the wrist. Similar modifications adorned her boots and she wore a belt with numerous small pockets and attachments.

They looked above them at the intruders hanging upside down by their perspective and the man in the armored outfit laughed an obviously exaggerated cackle. “There’s a reason they call me Escher,” yelled the man at them. “Welcome to hell!” he shouted in defiance.

Undaunted and silent, the group moved into the warped area and began trying to make their way to them. Escher nodded at his wife and she darted to the side of the platform they were on and through an archway. Suddenly she was among the five striking out at them. Her blows mostly missed, something that still astounded her, but she was able to land some, something she was sure astounded her assailants. Each time they tried to catch her she danced out of the way. She darted down a branching hall and suddenly was standing next to her husband, they followed but ended up standing on the wall on a platform that didn’t appear connected directly to them. In fact, despite stairs and doorways leading off it, it didn’t seem to connect to anything.

“How’s the barrier?” she asked.

“Slowly degrading,” Escher responded. “This is taking most of what I have to maintain. But I have them in the stairway.” He pointed and indeed the five of them were on a series of platforms connected by stairs that formed an infinite loop. Doorways led off the various platforms but each time they entered one they simply exited another. “They’re trapped for now.”

On the platform the one with the guns who had shot out her cannons pulled the guns again and shot at them. The bullets disappeared in mid-air and struck other places around the various platforms, never coming close to them. He then started shooting in seemingly random patterns around the platform they were on. The five then started walking through a passage one of the bullets had taken and emerged on another platform where he repeated the action.

“Damn,” Escher said. “I don’t know how he’s doing it but he’s somehow using his shots to track where the connections are. They’re figuring out the maze and finding the connections I need to leave in place.”

“We’re saying ‘I don’t know how’ a lot. I think they are all affecting the quantum state in one way or another. Their powers are all similar to yours, if more limited, but they’re all using them about as effectively as they can. The lynchpin, he’s how their doing it, damn it took me a long time to get that.” She looked angry now, “I hate things that mess with the quantum state,” she glanced at her husband with a wicked smile, “well, except you of course.”

“All right, even with them figuring their way through I’ll have the barrier down and us out of here with minutes to spare. It takes more than this to beat us.”

He smiled deeply at his wife, they didn’t have to beat their enemies to claim victory, they survived and they prospered. The loss of this house would sting because they actually loved it but the cost? You don’t get as far as they have counting costs of living.

The smile suddenly turned into a rictus his lips pulling tightly back as every muscle in his body contracted. The smell of ozone suddenly permeated the air and his wife jumped backward into a defensive crouch. The view all around them suddenly shifted and the room was just a normal empty room. Their enemies would be on them soon.

Her husband fell forward and there was no one else with them. But she wasn’t fooled. She lashed out with a kick striking where an invisible attacker would have been but struck nothing, she knew she would but in just a second… She grabbed to her side, wrestling an invisible wrist holding the shock glove away from her. A voice from nowhere said, “that’s not possible,” as she pulled the wrist down sharply. There was a sudden spark as it connected with the thigh of her invisible assailant. He went rigid then collapsed in her grip, turning visible.

“It’s nice to hear someone else say that for a change,” she said aloud just as five others entered the room.

Her husband was on the ground behind her, she shifted her grip on the unconscious man and took him by the throat, the claws of her gloves drawing five small rivulets of blood forth as she tightened her hold.

“No further or the start of your butcher’s bill is one invisible man.”

“Easy there Precise,” came a man’s voice, the one with the guns, “you’ve never killed anyone, you’ve never even used lethal force, in more than a decade as highly active super villains. I doubt you are going to start now.”

“No one has ever invaded my home before,” she shot back. “No one has ever put me or my husband in danger. Anyone kills to protect their own lives!” Her mind was racing in overdrive, her power was failing her here, the only exploit was the one she was using, the hostage but, she knew it wouldn’t work, it wasn’t a strong enough advantage. Every weakness she probed covered over, one covered the next, covered the next. ‘Damn brilliant’, she thought ruefully.  ‘Damn deadly’, her only hope was to play for time. ‘If Escher would just wake up, this would be a whole different…’, her thought was interrupted as the body she held in her hands suddenly vanished, not invisible, gone, her hand closed on nothing.

“In for a penny,” she shouted as she leapt at the group letting her power subsume her. Each strike fell exactly where it needed to, each movement dodged to avoid attacks and allow counterstrikes, everything about her attack was absolutely precise.

Not one blow hit.

Every time she was about to hit one of them they moved just out of the way. It was like they could see it coming. “Precogs? Really a whole group of precogs?”

“Not a one,” said the man with the gun as he sighted and fired on her.

“Tranqs?” she almost laughed. “No problem,” she said and kept fighting, but the floor seemed to slip away from her feet. Her equilibrium vanished.

“Sorry Precise,” the shooter said, “something new. I’m sure you’ll deal with it but by then… well why don’t you just save yourself some pain?”

Her vision swam but she clearly saw one of the others holding Escher’s body in their arms. ‘Damn’, she thought, ‘You always were my one weakness’.

“Fine,” she said trying to hold up her hands in surrender. “You haven’t killed either of us so you are either here to use us or capture us. Given the power level of your little group I’m going to guess capture.”

She laughed loudly, “So you finally caught Escher and Precise, well, don’t think any jail will hold us, not the best supermax you can design, we’ll always beat it in the end.”

A woman in a black military uniform, Force Ops Precise realized, walked out from the hallway behind the faceless group in black. She recognized her as the woman who was in the clearing in the woods. In her hands she was carrying two silver collars etched with what looked like circuitry.  As she snapped the first one around Escher’s neck, he finally started coming around as she did so. He was dazed but awake. He looked over at his wife and gave the smallest shake of his head while silently mouthing the words “no powers.”

“Who said anything about jail?” She almost laughed as she said it. “We wouldn’t go through this much effort just to catch a couple of criminals who don’t pose a public threat.”

“Then what?” asked Precise warily.

“Peter and Victoria Raines,” she said surprising them with their real names, not even the aliases under which they owned this house. “Under the mandate granted by the Second Patriot Act you’ve been drafted.”

__________

Don ran down the alley as fast as he could.

Not to say that was very quick, he wasn’t in the best of shape. Everything was crazy, he had no idea why they were after him or how he was going to get away from them. He only knew he couldn’t afford to get caught by them. Everything that happened in the last five minutes told him that getting caught was a bad idea.

He had been in his bookstore minding his own business when the four of them came in. Little things told him they were going to be a problem. First of all four men in suits in his bookstore just before closing coming in within thirty seven seconds of each other stood out. There were slight bulges under each one’s jacket indicating a weapon. No smell of gun oil or gunpowder residue, but he could sense a slight electrical field from each. Tasers, not firearms, that much was good. He had hit the silent alarm before the first of them was three feet into the store when he assumed it was going to be a robbery, now that there were four he assumed it was something different. When the electrical signal from the alarm didn’t propagate the way it should, he knew the line had been cut.

He could tell by the way they moved down the aisles in his store and what books they looked at that they weren’t there to shop. They were trying to look like customers and checking to see who else was present. ‘They don’t want witnesses’, he thought worriedly, ‘very bad’.

The slight wear marks in their clothes and the scuff patterns on their shoes told him that they ran and fought in these suits. They didn’t have the wear patterns you would see when someone sat all day in a pair of pants. The shoes all had areas indicating impacts rather than simple walking or even running. There was a faint stain on one of their shoes, no one else would have even noticed it. There was the coppery smell of blood wafted from that stain, no more than a week old.

He had tried to act nonchalant, he bent over the store computer as if looking something up on the internet. He pulled up his video conferencing software. He needed to get a call for help out. ‘Unable to connect, check your connection’, flashed on screen.

A sudden scrape from someone pivoting on their shoe, caused him to dive behind the desk just as the Taser wires went over his head.

He ducked into the back room knocking piles and piles of books over to block the path of any who followed him and headed to the back door. There had been three sets of running footsteps coming toward him and the front door to his store had opened just as he reached the back door.

He pulled the back door of the shop open and ducked through, narrowly avoiding another Taser wire. He ran.

He didn’t hear footsteps in front of him down the alley but he did hear a heartbeat. It was different from the man who went out the front, stronger, more even, it certainly wasn’t the beat of someone who had just sprinted around a block. ‘Great a fifth person, I’m screwed’.

Looking around as he ran, he noticed everything, two hundred and fifteen loose pieces of trash, none of which would do him any good. A crumpled piece of newspaper blew by the headline read ‘Which way does the pendulum swing: Terrorist acts and Patriot Acts’. The small piece of the article on the one page went on to describe the new Patriot Act created in response to Meredith Falls and called into question if the government was going too far. The walls were mostly bare, one air conditioning unit stuck out from a window but it was attached far too well for him to pull it out. There were no handholds to let him climb to a window. There was a pipe that ran up one wall but it could never hold his weight. There were rusted weakened joints on that pipe and it was clearly disused. The pipe was right before the turn in the alley which would bring him face to face with the waiting man. Behind him he could hear the books being shoved aside and the other three men approaching the door from his store to the alley.

He grabbed the pipe and observed how the metal stressed as he pulled on it. He shifted his grip and the stress increased, he threw his weight into it and suddenly it snapped off leaving a three foot length of pipe with a jagged end in his hands. It was heavy, he could swing it, but not very effectively. He hoped it would be enough.

He rounded the corner and the man was standing there, casually leaning against the wall. This man was solid all through, six foot two, he had a calmness about him like this was just another part of his day. He was wearing a black suit and, despite it being evening, dark sunglasses. He looked to be in his thirties; Don noticed faint lines around the eyes and one or two hairs that were losing the deep brown of the rest of his hair. He leaned slightly to his left as if compensating for something. His breathing was slow and even, his heart didn’t waver when he came around the corner brandishing the pipe as a weapon.

He looked Don up and down. Don knew he was out of shape, had a paunch, he spent the last twenty years of his life running a book store, he had no training in self-defense. Even escaping this far out of the store was pure luck. ‘What the hell is this about, what did I do to deserve this?’ he asked himself but deep down he knew it had to be his recent postings. With all the excitement over Meredith Falls he had analyzed everything the news had said and everything he could track down on the web. He posted his theories and thoughts but that was just foolishness. None of it made sense, he even said that. Sure there might have been bits that uncovered something here and there. And yes he predicted the passage of the Second Patriot Act before congress had even met to address the issue but that was no great leap.

Oh god!’ he thought with sudden clear realization, ‘They must think I’m involved somehow, one of the terrorists or a sympathizer’.

“I didn’t do anything!” Don shouted at the man standing in front of him blocking his path to freedom. “I have nothing to do with them! Just leave me alone!”

The man in the dark sunglasses stood up straight facing him looking down on Don a good six inch difference in height. “Down!” he said sharply and pushed forward knocking Don to the ground.

Don had seen the blow coming, noted the tensing of the man’s muscles but it came too fast for him to do anything about it. ‘That’s faster than possible’, Don thought ‘no one could move that fast except…’ Don suddenly went cold inside, ‘a super’ he finished his thought. ‘Oh my god they aren’t from the government coming after me for my postings, they’re from Far From Noble, coming after me for what I said’.

As Don tumbled to his knees the new man grabbed the pipe from his hands, easily taking it from him. He then stepped past him further into the alley just as the rapid footsteps behind him stopped. Don glanced back over his shoulder and saw three men with Tasers out, ‘rapidly reloadable Tasers’, he incidentally noted, ‘I’m such a dead man’.

All three of the man took aim the point of aim of two of them was at Don himself but the third aimed at their ally who had just knocked him to the ground. ‘Maybe he’s not an ally?’ wondered Don while he was waiting for the sudden shock of the Taser.

The shock never came, he heard the whirring of the spinning pipe before he looked up to see what the man in dark glasses was doing. He could see the pipe spinning though the motion was so fast no one else would have seen anything other than a blur. He moved the pipe first swinging it in front of himself and then down to catch all three of the wires as they flew forward. He could see each on wrap around the metal pipe, it was impressive even if it was crazy, that pipe was conductive, this was going to send the full juice of all three Tasers into him at once, and given the two handed grip he held the pipe in the current was going to arc straight across his heart. He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t go into cardiac arrest.

The three Tasers triggered almost simultaneously. There was the sharp smell of ozone in the air suddenly and he could see the man’s hands clenching tighter on the pipe and he heard the sound of bending metal. He expected to see the man convulse and fall but he simply stood there with all that voltage pumping through him. As the charge ended he pulled on the pipe like it was a fishing pole and he was reeling in a catch. The three Tasers flew from their owner’s hands crashing into the wall of the alley with crushing force. They shattered into between fifty three and one hundred and thirty seven pieces each, the plastic shells splintering under the impact.

“Stand down, we’re from the Nat… urkh…” one of the three chasing him started to say but before he could get the words out, the man in the dark sunglasses, his protector? Suddenly closed the gap between them and Don heard the sharp snap of bone as the speaker had his jaw broken.

There was thirty feet eight inches between where he stood and the speaker he covered it in a tenth of a second give or take. ‘That’s at least ten times faster than the best Olympic sprinter,’ he realized. ‘There’s no way I can get away from this guy and saved me from the others or not I want to get away from this guy’.

The man with the broken jaw was down but the other two popped out combat batons, Don could hear the spring loaded weapons extending. ‘Maybe they can slow him, maybe I can get away’, he hoped desperately. He got his feet under him and ran as fast as he could to the mouth of the alley.

“Wait!” he heard the super call out. If he was going to say more he held back and Don heard the sounds of blows landing on both sides of the fight behind him.

Don was just about to exit the alley when he heard a rapid heartbeat in front of him to the left of the alley mouth. He smelled oil and heard the scrape of metal as a safety was thumbed off. The last man, the one who had run out the front of the store had made it around the block. He was breathing heavy and if Don wasn’t in a state of panic he would have realized he was there long before this.

“You are coming with me Mr. Rawley,” the man said, “it’s a matter of national security.” He gestured him to move forward with the gun as a sedan with tinted windows pulled up in the street behind him. When he didn’t move the man continued, “Now Mr. Rawley! I don’t want to use this but we won’t lose you.” He paused and his face took on an even more serious cast, “if we can’t have you no one can.”

Before Don could do anything he heard a whistling sound from behind coming toward him. He didn’t have any time to react when the pipe he had torn off the wall flew past his shoulder, he could see flecks of blood dripping off it and smell the acrid tang left by the electrical surge as it passed him flying through the air. He heard the jarring impact as it hit the gun hand of the man threatening him. He heard sixteen individual snaps as various bones broke, he heard the click of the hammer on the bullet in the chamber as the man involuntarily squeezed the trigger. He watched the bullet hit the ground in front of him and to his right before it ricocheted into the alley wall and imbedded itself there, flecks of brick forming an unusual pattern in the air for a split second on impact. He heard the clank of the gun hitting the ground and smelled the copper of blood coming from the trigger finger that was torn loose from the pipe’s impact. He counted fourteen drops of blood spattering the ground before the stream of blood erupted from the stump where the finger had been. And he heard the crunch of metal as the pipe embedded itself six inches deep through the rear passenger door of the sedan. He realized from the sound of impact that the car was armored which made it even more impressive.

The now nine-fingered man grabbed his injured hand as another man got out of the car and pulled him back into it before it took off tires squealing and the pipe sticking from its side hitting a garbage can sitting at the curb.

The man in dark sunglasses walked out of the alley beside Don, the slowness of his stride belittled the events that just occurred. He was dragging one of the other men with him, the man was unconscious.

He turned and looked at Don, who had a look of horror on his face. “I hate bullies,” was all he said as he reached over and casually snapped the unconscious man’s right arm at the elbow. ‘That’s going to cripple him,’ thought Don. Then a new thought hit him, ‘Why should I care? They were going to kill me rather than let this guy save me from them’.

“Who… who are they?” asked Don shakily, it was the first words he uttered since begging for his life… was it only fifty-two seconds ago?

The man in the glasses reached into the pocket of the unconscious man, he pulled out a billfold and tossed it to Don. Inside was an ID card indicating he was Agent Derrick Wilkins of the NSA.

Oh god,’ thought Don, they were the good guys, government agents, ‘I am so screwed, I was right this guy’s one of the terrorists’.

Don started backing away without realizing he was doing it.

“Easy there, I’m here to help you. Do you think NSA agents are supposed to charge into public places and kidnap American citizens without due process, federal warrants, and such?”

“Umm, the Second Pat…”

“Yeah the new laws, well they don’t remove your protections, you aren’t a super terrorist,” he said emphasizing the word terrorist. It was clear this man knew he was a super too.

“Then why?”

“Covert mission, NSA will deny it, but it will be true all the same.”

“Who… who are you?”

“My name is Caleb Martins and like I said, I’m here to help you.”

“Where are you from?”

“Sorry, I don’t do IDs or twenty questions about myself.”

“Why were they after me?”

“Don. May I call you Don?” he asked but continued before an answer could be given. “Don, you and I both know what you can do. I’m sure you know about all the information NSA is sitting on, the big scandal revealed a few months ago?”

“Yeah, but what does that have to do with me?”

“Don, think about it. What’s the biggest problem with having a huge database of information most of which is irrelevant and maybe a small fraction of a small fraction is actually relevant and important?”

Don just looked back at him dumbfounded. The shock was getting to him at this point.

“A database is useless without being able to search, sort, and organize it. Do you think you might be able to do something about it?”

“I… I could sort all the data and find what was needed.”

“Yeah, probably in about a month by our estimates, you could make that huge pile of irrelevancies relevant and meaningful in a month. It would take hundreds, maybe thousands of people years to do what you could do alone in a month.” Caleb paused, “Is it any wonder NSA wants you?”

“And what about you, what do you want?”

“I want you too, but not to sort through data that was obtained in a questionable, possibly illegal manner on citizens of the United States with no criminal record or suspicious issues. We want you in the fight against Far From Noble and others like them.”

“So what makes you any different from them?”

“Not a lot I suppose, from your point of view. We’re both recruiters who want you for similar reasons, your ability to obtain and interpret data. The big difference is what we want you to do won’t be directed at random American citizens. Well that and on a personal note for you, if you say no I’m not going to put a bullet in your head.”

“Then I say no.”

“Of course,” Caleb went on as if Don hadn’t spoken, “if you say no, there isn’t much I can do to stop the NSA from coming back and putting a bullet in your head either.”

“I…”

“I understand Don. I do. But trust me; I’m your best option here. You could go work for them, you could let them kill you, you could try to run and evade them. Or you could come with me and join Force Ops. You aren’t going to be part of some covert group. You are going to be part of the most public version ever seen. The group that stands up in front of every terrorist and want to be terrorist with super powers out there and say no, you can’t do this because we are here to stop you.”

“I…”

“Think about it,” Caleb continued, “I figure you have five minutes before those agents send in a bigger group with bigger guns. I can wait around that long.”

__________

Harold stopped to buy a coffee. It was one of his few vices and he loved good coffee, he even loved just standing in the coffee shop and savoring the smells of different blends. In a world with a Starbucks on every corner, it was nice to have Connoisseur’s near his home. He always thought that if you could make a cup of coffee that tasted as good as it smelled the world would be a better place. Every one of the blends at Connoisseur’s tasted better than they smelled.

He stood in line waiting to order his usual. He hated the line but it was a small price to pay for coffee this good. There was only one Connoisseur’s, the owner had refused all offers to sell, expand, license, or go corporate. This was the place serious coffee drinkers came for coffee. It was also down the street from the national mall and a large number of senators and representatives came here or sent their staff to pick up coffee for them. One of the servers called out an order for Lyle, a triple espresso with a shot of hazelnut in it. He frowned slightly, how people could flavor good coffee he would never understand. Lyle came up got his drink and headed for the door, having a slightly difficult time getting through the crowd of people holding both his coffee and the hard leather briefcase he was carrying. The line kept moving forward and Harold was next.

He stepped up to order greeting the barista, “Hi Frank, just my usual today.”

“You got it Mr. Brooks,” Frank replied taking the ten dollar bill Harold proffered to him.

He rang up the order and then called out in surprise, “What the… all the money is gone.”

The manager came up to the register. “What are you talking about Frank?”

“The money, it’s gone. I just rang up a customer thirty seconds ago and the draw was full, now it’s empty.”

Harold looked around; no one was acting oddly, other than people looking at Frank and the loud disturbance he was making. No one was heading toward the door which just swung closed behind the guy with the triple espresso. Making up his mind, Harold said “look Frank, obviously you need to figure this out. Hold on to the ten, I’ll be back for my order later.”

Frank made a non-committal reply, while trying to get the story, short though it was, across to his manager. Harold walked out. He supposed it was technically leaving the scene of a crime but he could deal with that if he needed to. Once on the street he looked around and spotted Lyle walking east drinking his espresso.

He hurried along, realizing yet again that he wasn’t as young as he used to be, until he caught up with Lyle and walked alongside him. He took a good look at him, engraining his features into his mind just in case he needed to be able to describe him: five foot ten, mid-twenties, red hair, pale skin, freckles, slim build, and clean shaven. Harold would do a police sketch artist proud.

“You know Lyle, that’s a pretty minor use of a pretty major talent,” he said quietly as they walked.

Lyle almost choked on his espresso. “Were you talking to me?” he said sucking in air to cool his burning tongue.

“I was just thinking that if I was a teleporter and,” he added stressing the ‘and’, “I was the type to steal for a living that I would probably want to hit a bigger target than a coffee shop. Even one as popular as Connoisseur’s.”

“I’m sorry,” he said nervously while picking up his pace, “I don’t have the foggiest idea what you are talking about.”

“I’m talking about the money sitting in your briefcase.” Lyle looked like he was about to run. “Calm down,” Harold continued. “It’s not like I called the police, though robbing Connoisseur’s is a special kind of crime in my book.”

“It is good espresso,” Lyle chuckled, despite the topic of the conversation.

“But as I was saying, with the ability to teleport objects I wonder why you would bother to rob a coffee shop, a high end coffee shop to be sure, but probably less than a thousand dollars. It seems to me, depending on limitations of course, that there are many more profitable targets. If I were going to risk a crime with super powers, and the punishments that entails if caught, I would damn well want it to be worth it.”

“Well,” said Lyle slyly, slowing his pace down, “hypothetically speaking, “if I indeed was blessed with such an ability, I would know that banks would be a great target but they all have weight based sensors now as well as detectors that look for changes in atmospheric pressure to detect supers removing money from the vaults and even the draws. Jewelry stores may or may not have similar security systems. Hard to tell without risking it and then you would need to fence the jewelry. So for the thief who just wants to live comfortably and not have to deal with others, he’s stuck with small change.”

“Hmm, I can see that could be a problem.” The two of them kept walking along and chatting. No one watching would have realized that they didn’t know each other or just how odd the topic of their conversation actually was.

“You know there are other options,” Harold continued.

“I was wondering where this was going. I’m not interested in joining a gang, paying protection money, or becoming a super villain. I just want to live comfortably, maybe have a few of the finer things in life. I don’t need more, I don’t want fame and I especially don’t want trouble. So if that’s all?” Lyle sped up and moved to cross the street.

Harold walked up next to him once more. “No, I’m afraid that’s not all Lyle, or would you rather I call you Mr. Wagner.”

If Lyle was surprised before he was shocked to silence now. He just stared at Harold jaw open.

“Don’t worry Lyle,” Harold continued, “I have no intention of revealing your secrets… not unless I have to.”

“Blackmail? You’ve got nothing. I’ve never been investigated or accused of anything. There isn’t a shred of evidence linking me to anything…” Lyle paused as if realizing what he was saying and where he was saying it, “hypothetically speaking of course.”

“Blackmail is such an ugly word,” Harold shook his head with an exaggerated sadness. “I would never blackmail anyone.” He turned as if he were going to walk away but then stopped. “Of course it’s my duty as a citizen to report what I suspect to the authorities. Frank, the barista will certainly tell the police that I was a witness to whatever it was. And I certainly want to help them catch the person who robbed my favorite coffee shop.” Harold shook his head again for emphasis, “and Frank, he’s a good kid. He’s working his way through college as a barista in Connoisseur’s, I don’t want to see his job in jeopardy.”

“You still have nothing,” Lyle said and turned into the nearest side street, a narrow pass between two adjacent brownstones.

Clearly he isn’t thinking’, mused Harold, ‘he’s heading into a dead end’. Then Harold was hurrying after him, ‘stupid, he’s a teleporter, just because he only teleported money to him doesn’t mean he can’t teleport himself away’.

But Lyle hadn’t left. He was standing in an open area which served as the entrance to the garages for the two homes. He had him off balance, now he just needed to finish it.

“There’s nowhere to run Lyle,” Harold said, “I suggest you listen to me and my offer.”

“Yeah or what old man? I am so out of here!” he almost shouted and moved to push past Harold back to the street.

“That’s not a good idea,” Harold said with exaggerated calmness and moved his jacket back triggering the mechanism to make his sidearm appear. He showed the small silver gun in the underarm holster to Lyle. “I don’t like to threaten but…”

“Then don’t!” Lyle spit back and stretched out his hand. Suddenly the gun was in Lyle’s hand and he pointed it at Harold. They were still ten or fifteen feet apart, but Lyle’s hand was obviously shaking, he doubted he had ever held a gun before. “Now,” continued Lyle, “out of my way old man.”

The gun in Lyle’s hand emitted a high pitched whine and suddenly there was a flash of light and Lyle was lying down on the ground. Harold walked over, hitched up his pant legs and carefully knelt on his heels. ‘The joys of age’, he thought as he heard his joints creak. “Do I look stupid?” he asked the man who was moaning on the ground. “Would you show an object teleporter your gun if it could possibly be used against you?”

“Uhhhhh-mmphh,” was the only reply.

“It will fade in about a minute,” Harold said while carefully opening Lyle’s briefcase to reveal a fair amount of loose bills as well as a number of wallets, watches, and small jewelry. “Not above fencing or pawning some items I see.” He closed the briefcase and shook his head.

“OK Lyle, here is the deal,” he said in an even, matter of fact tone. “First, the money goes back to Connoisseur’s, anonymously is fine but it goes back and so more than one person can see that it’s back at the same time. They are good people but no need to throw that level of temptation at them.

“Arrrrhh,” Lyle groaned in response.

“Now then the rest of it you can keep for all I care. We probably couldn’t figure out where it should go back to anyhow. After that, I have a new future for you. Welcome to the wonderful world of career military. You are joining Force Ops. With that power of yours, you’re a shoe in.”

“Nooooo,” he shook his head and cleared it a bit, though his speech was still off. “I won’t do it. They wouldn’t take me anyway, I’m a thief. They don’t want criminals.”

“Oh Lyle, are you kidding me? Have you looked at the news lately? There are god damned super powered terrorists attacking the heart of America. They will take anyone they think they need to prevent another Meredith Falls.”

“I… can’t… help… against… that…” Lyle replied speech now clear but slowed, he paused between each word as if straining to go on.

“Actually I would bet you fill a hole in their roster. Want to take the bet? How about the remainder of the money in your briefcase? You win and I double it.” Harold stared at Lyle but didn’t get a response this time. “No? OK then.”

“Listen Lyle, Force Ops will take you and you don’t really have another option here except jail. And don’t think they won’t take you. You don’t watch the sports news either do you? They just took a guy with a slew of drunk and disorderly convictions who just destroyed a bar injuring several people in the process.”

Harold continued but now had a sour expression on his face. “A few years ago one division recruited someone who shot and killed three HCP students in cold blood on YouTube for god’s sake. I don’t think they’ll have much in the way of problems with a thief who was never even been accused of a string of what essentially amounts to petty burglaries.”

“I won’t do it,” he said slowly climbing to his feet.

“That’s your choice of course,” Harold said mildly. “Of course if you choose not to I’m sure we can put together a list of burglaries fitting your MO and scan the security footage for you. I know those images are rough but I have a friend who is very good at photographic enhancement. If you aren’t there I’m sure she could find you anyway.”

“So first blackmail then framing me?”

“Oh we both know you will have been there. It’s just whether or not the camera caught you. Plus all that will let them do is get a warrant for a deep telepathic scan. That will prove the crimes and with the number of crimes I’m sure it will find you will be going into a super-max for a long, long, time. Even for such minor crimes. I hear the secret is to find the biggest guy you can and beat him almost to death your first day. But then again, you’re probably a knock, hope someone in there likes you.”

“Screw you man, you’re crazy.”

“A little obsessed perhaps,” he commented introspectively, “but not crazy.” Harold offered Lyle his hand. Lyle looked ready to spit in his face. “Oh come now, be a good sport about it. You might like it and face it you will be doing a damn sight better than going to jail.”

“I can’t believe my luck was this bad to run into a crazy man like you buying coffee.”

“Yeah wrong place, wrong time I guess,” chuckled Harold.

__________

Jesse drove through the ornate ironwork gates slowly. There was a plaque set on the right hand brick column to which the gate was attached. An extra lens from his eyepiece dropped down in front of Jesse’s left eye and magnified the lettering on the plaque. It read “Dignity” and in slightly smaller letters below it, “established 2012.”

The lens retracted and Jesse kept driving. The road twisted a bit leading to what looked like a huge Victorian style mansion with several outbuildings. He pulled up in front of the stairs leading to the front door and parked. He had been here before but not since the changeover, it will be interesting to see the differences.

A man in a physician’s white coat came out from the doors and met Jesse halfway up the stairs.

“Dr. Bonner?” the man in the white coat asked.

“Yes, but please just call me Jesse. You must be Dr. Harper?”

“Yes but likewise, please call me Andrew.”

“Alright Andrew,” Jesse replied in a friendly manner. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out here.”

“Well,” Andrew answered looking a bit embarrassed, “I hope you’ll find the place improved. We are all ashamed of what happened here in the past.”

“The things that monster did were not the fault of any of you who work here now. It just goes to show you human beings are capable of acts just as vile as any super villain.”

“I suppose.”

“Look, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Dignity wouldn’t exist except based on a settlement pushed through all the way to the Supreme Court. I find it a little like what they did to the tobacco industry. Fund the group to fix the problems and set things right.”

“Yes, we try to do that. And I assure you none of the residents are anything but people voluntarily seeking aid for their afflictions.”

“Andrew,” Jesse asked hesitantly, “are you under the impression that I’m here as some sort of inspector?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Oh my no, they have people much more qualified than I am to do that. I’m sure they are making damn sure the tragedy of Powered Havens and its victims never happens again.”

“So why are you here?”

“Exactly why I said I was coming, to meet Cedric Vega and see if what I’ve heard about him is true.” He looked thoughtful for a few seconds and then light dawned in his eyes. “Oh… Oh I can see how that could sound like we doubted your reports about him and were coming to inspect you. Oh Andrew I am sorry to worry you for no reason. I am here to see if I can help poor Cedric and perhaps give him back a life outside this place.”

“That… that would be incredible,” Andrew said in stunned disbelief.

Jesse nodded, ‘it won’t be easy’, he thought to himself, wishing again he had any idea how the Company pulled off their trick with the kids at Lander. ‘Have to have Harold take a walk over by their labs… maybe, just maybe he...’ Jesse shook himself out of his wandering thoughts. He didn’t have whatever it was they had and he had to do the best he could.

“Shall we go meet Cedric?” Jesse asked.

Andrew led him to an elevator, it was disguised as a closet to not detract from the Victorian aesthetic but inside it was a modern elevator. He hit the button for the fifth sub-basement, the lowest floor there was.

“You’ve expanded I see,” Jesse said in an offhand manner.

“Well we were the first Dignity to open our doors, a large number of people had applied for residence and there were quite a few cases that truly needed our help. The last two floors are meant to contain Manhattan and Armageddon class threats.” The elevator doors opened and the two of them walked out into a well-lit but somewhat oppressive hallway. It was obvious they were underground. The whole place had a feel like a bomb shelter, or the bunker at a nuclear test. It had been years since Jesse had been in such a bunker but he would never forget the stifling feeling of standing in that room.

“Contain?”

“Well we do our best to neutralize the out of control powers and to prevent the emotional states or physical events that trigger them but we aren’t always successful. Many of our residents do need safe guards in place.”

“Forgive me Dr. Harper,” replied Jesse stressing his name as he returned to a cold formality, “but that sounds a great deal like what happened with Amelia Jacobson and the rest of the victims of Powered Havens.”

“Must we put the barriers of our titles back in place?” Dr. Harper asked hopefully. Seeing no reply other than a cold stare he continued, “Very well, Dr. Bonner, I’ll let you make your own decisions on that matter. Perhaps you should start by seeing our treatment of Cedric Vega, the very man you are already here to see.” There was barely suppressed anger in Dr. Harper’s voice, the implication that he was like his predecessor here infuriated him. “Cedric is after all our most dangerous resident, no one has more safeguards or restrictions in place then he does. Just remember they are all voluntary and they are all necessary.” He stopped and called over an orderly. “Can you escort Dr. Bonner to Cedric Vega’s room? I suddenly remembered another commitment. If you will excuse me Doctor?” he turned and walked back to the elevator they had emerged from without waiting for an answer.

“This way if you please Doctor,” the orderly said and led Jesse down the hallway and then to another hall that branched to the right. They had to pass through two check points, each with a vault-like door that could be closed at a moment’s notice. There, at the end of the branching hall was a door that made the other two look inadequate by comparison.

He tapped his glasses and on the lens the door was circled and descriptive text appeared. “X-16 level alloy, composition matches synthetic fifteen. Melting point well over two thousand degrees Celsius. Force resistance sixteen kilotons. Thickness of this installation is sixteen inches which will hold against a force one rating above maximum for sixty minutes.”

“Impressive,” Jesse murmured under his breath.

“What was that Doctor?” asked the orderly.

“Hmm,” Jesse mused, “oh nothing, sorry just my mind wandering. Well, let me in please.”

“I’m sorry doctor,” the orderly apologized. “Maybe you didn’t understand. I can’t just let you in.”

“What?” Jesse asked confused. “But the whole reason I’m here is to see this man. Didn’t you understand Dr. Harper? You were to escort me to him.”

“Well yes doctor and I have. But this is his living quarters. I can’t just let you in without Cedric’s permission.”

“Oh,” Jesse added embarrassed by his own actions, “I see, yes of course, Dignity and all that. I apologize.”

When Jesse didn’t make a move the orderly added. “Just knock sir.”

“Right,” Jesse walked up to the door, tapped his glasses again, took comfort from the words ‘Fire suppression system active’, which flashed on his lens, and knocked.

“Come in,” a voice answered over a hidden speaker and the door slid open.

Inside the room it was more pleasant than he expected. It was brightly lit and there were windows to his surprise. When he glanced at the window, his lens displayed ‘X-7 level holographic system, manufactured by Phase Five Systems, patent held by WiJi Incorporated Ltd. There were comfortable couches, a kitchen, and several doors leading off to what must be other rooms. Sitting on an overstuffed recliner was a large man in a t-shirt and jeans who was on fire. The heat shimmer surrounding him made it almost impossible to get a good look at him. Another filter dropped into place of Jesse’s left eye and the man’s face became clear. Dark skinned, black hair, strong features with a slightly bent nose that looked like it was broken but not set right.

Jesse stepped into the room, the door sliding closed behind him. He could feel heat radiating off this man but the circulation in the room minimized the impact on him and when he stepped inside he could feel the flow and currents in the room adjusting to his presence and the heat diminishing.

“Cedric?” Jesse asked.

“Yes,” he responded, even with the lens enhancements he could barely make out the lips moving under the sheath of fire. “You must be Dr. Bonner. I hope you are comfortable, is the heat too much?”

“No, I’m fine for now Cedric.”

“What are you here to talk to me about doctor it was a bit unclear. I’ve seen so many doctors. No one can help. This isn’t really a sickness, it’s a disability sure but it’s not an illness.”

“I’m not that kind of doctor anyway Cedric, and please, call me Jesse.”

“OK Jesse,” he agreed, “so if you aren’t that kind of doctor what kind are you? Not another psychiatrist trying to get me to control my emotions. I know that’s important for many powereds but not for me. They always want me to call them by their first names too.”

“No Cedric, I’m not a medical doctor at all. I’m an engineer. I build things. Devices mostly and I think I can build something to help you.”

“More stuff for the room. I gotta tell you doc, if you built this stuff I’m seriously impressed. Furniture that I don’t burn up, a way for normal people to interact with me, and windows,” he looked wistful through the heat haze and fire surrounding him. “Well not windows but you know what I mean. So what new improvements do you have for the place? If you found a way for me to have a cold beer, I will give you my first born.” He suddenly realized just what he said, “Uhh, I mean, well, it’s just an expression. I know you don’t want my first born, it would just be nice to actually be able to have one.”

“Well Cedric,” Jesse said with a cough to cover his embarrassment over the topic, “I didn’t design any of the devices for your room. I mostly design devices to suppress, control, or amplify powers.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means I hope to be able to let you leave this place and be part of society again.”

“Doctor… I mean Jesse, that’s incredible. What do you need me to do?”

“Well, uhh, that is,” Jesse stammered, embarrassed again for what he had to ask of this boy. “Well we would need you to join Force Ops.”

“What?” he nearly shouted, the fire seemed to intensify.

His baseline might be independent of his emotional state but clearly excitement increases the flame’, thought Jesse. The fans in the room began to whine as the cooling systems kicked up a notch or two. “Cedric, calm down, no one is going to force you to do anything you don’t want to.”

“Well that’s good,” he said with a touch of anger in his voice, “cause I have no intention of joining the army.” He stood up and started pacing the room, a trail of fire showing the path of his steps, sparks and small wisps of flame shooting off him at random moments. “I mean, how dare you!” he continued, anger starting to overwhelm him, the flames rising higher, the fans starting to rattle as they continued to speed up.

Contain, Harper said’, ran through Jesse’s mind, ‘I’m an idiot, of course powereds of this level need a failsafe. I just hope we don’t need it now’.

“Cedric, I’m going to guess you don’t follow the news down here.”

Cedric continued to pace and rant, sweat began to bead down Jesse’s forehead.

“Cedric!” Jesse yelled and was ignored.

He picked up a small carving that sat on the table and through it at Cedric. It was a fireproof material but in this case that was a relative term. The carving caught Cedric in his shoulder and suddenly burst into flame. Cedric finally realized what was happening and stopped in his tracks. He started to take some deep breaths and the sheath of fire surrounding him returned to its previous level. Jesse took his finger off the fire suppression trigger.

“I, I’m sorry doctor,” Cedric looked away, “I shouldn’t have… there’s a reason I’m locked down here… the army, they would just want me as a weapon but I don’t want to be a weapon, I just want to be normal or at least live normally.” He paused and muttered, “Or as normally as I can.”

“Cedric, I’m sorry I upset you. The technology to help you, it’s expensive. If it were mine to develop alone, I would just give it to you. But it’s not mine, Force Ops funded the research and continues to fund the research but they want something back from it. Controlled powereds. You won’t be a super, even at my best I couldn’t give you that. But I could give you control.”

“I think you should leave,” small plumes of steam were emerging from Cedric’s face, tears of a man on fire.

“Cedric, I don’t want to intrude but I need to show you two things before I go. Maybe it will help a bit, maybe it will make things worse.” Jesse considered his next words carefully. “I think you need to see this, everyone needs to see this.”

“See what?” his voice was shaky, it was obvious he was trying hard to hold things together.

Jesse tapped the side of his glasses again, this time calling up his holographic projector. He hadn’t designed the ones in this room, it didn’t mean he never worked in holography. “I’m going to guess you don’t follow the news living down here?”

“No,” he said sadly, “no I don’t. It’s just a reminder of what I can’t have.”

“Be glad you don’t have this. And I’m sorry to have to be the one to show it to you.” Jesse tapped the glasses again and played the video of Far From Noble. It was edited, not the full hour but it did have the same impact. Cedric stared at the images unable to look away no matter how much he wanted to. The plumes of steam returned and this time did not stop while the images played through.

“Why?” Cedric asked several minutes after the images played out, “why did you show me that?”

“You need to understand that Force Ops coming to you isn’t just about recruiting a powerful weapon as you put it. You’ve been here almost since Dignity opened. Did anyone ever approach you before?”

“No.”

“No. We aren’t heartless, we aren’t cruel, we are men with a job to do. We have a mission to preserve and protect America and all its citizens from the mighty to the meek. We think you can help us with that mission.”

“What else?”

“I… I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”

“You said there were two things you needed to show me.”

“Oh right, I did.” Jesse pulled his hand from his pocket and tossed a small rectangular shaped object at Cedric, it looks a bit like a thick wallet. “Here, catch,” he said as he tossed it to Cedric, not trying to bean him with it this time.

Cedric did manage to catch it, despite the surprise.

His flames winked out completely other that a small bit here and there which danced across his skin. He stood there in fireproof clothing and for the first time in many years didn’t need it.

“Oh my god!” Tears ran down his face, this time there was no steam, he raised his hand and touched it to his face pulling back as he connected with the wetness. “Actual liquid touching me and not boiling off. Jesse do you know what this means? Do you know how much my diet needs to be altered just so I can eat something other than ashes? So I can drink and not simply have steam escape before I can close my mouth? It’s a miracle. I thought it wasn’t ready?”

“It’s not,” said Jesse. “That block has about another ten minutes of life left in it. The full rig will give about eight hours right now and it’s bigger than that. This is a demo in good faith.”

“Faith. I haven’t had that in years. This place is about Dignity but it’s not about Faith, it’s not about Hope. This,” Cedric said holding the device out toward its inventor, “this is about Faith and Hope.”

“I figured I owed you at least a few minutes of normal for what I put you through.”

Cedric was at one of the hologram screens, he did something to the controls to turn it into a mirror. “This is the first time I’ve seen my face since second grade.”

“At least your power means you don’t need to shave,” joked Jesse.

Cedric didn’t laugh. He just stood there and stared at his reflection. He kept staring until small fires began to erupt on his skin again. He turned to Jesse before his face was completely consumed. “OK Jesse, I’ll do it. If this is potentially what you offer… well, then I’ll be your weapon to earn it.”

Jesse simply nodded. “Goodbye for now Cedric. There will be some fireproof paperwork coming down for you to sign.”

Cedric nodded and went back to staring at what little of his face was left to see in the mirrored hologram.

The door opened as Jesse approached it, he leaned hard against the wall as soon as it closed behind him and let out a breath.

“You actually care?” Dr. Harper’s voice asked approaching from down the hall.

“What?” Jesse asked surprised by the question. “Of course I care, why would I do all this if I didn’t?”

“You’re Force Ops, why wouldn’t you?”

“I never told you I was with Force Ops.”

“No, when we had our disagreement I went up to my office and called down to Cedric. He allowed me to listen in on your conversation… just in case.”

Jesse stared him right in the eyes, “Fair enough,” he finally said. “I take it you have no objections to Cedric leaving?”

“No, I hate that he’s joining the military but if you can really give him even some control over his powers…” he looked at his feet and muttered, “then the price is worth it.”

“Thank you, Andrew,” Jesse said tentatively, “if it’s still OK to drop the titles.”

“It’s fine Jesse.” He offered his hand for Jesse to shake. “I can’t say I’m entirely fond of your methods but you offer something we can’t give him.”

“I try.”

“I was wondering…” Andrew stopped as if thinking the better of it.

“What?”

“Well, there’s another resident I think might be someone you want to meet, if you think you can help her.”

“Andrew, I reviewed all of your residents before I spoke with you last week. There isn’t anyone else who fits that I can help.”

“She’s new. Got here two days ago and well…” Andrew actually looked mournful, “I don’t think I can help her at all. She’s a bit too traumatized for the normal methods. She’s also a bit too strong for us to contain appropriately.”

Jesse looked at Andrew with disbelief on his face. He just got out of a room designed to hold in a walking wildfire and she is too powerful for them to contain her.

Andrew motioned for Jesse to follow. He led him down another hallway, this one was long and unbranching, the walls were plated with what his glasses identified as an X-20 alloy, ‘that’s about the strongest stuff there is’, he thought to himself. As they got closer to the end of the hall he could see areas of the wall had bent and buckled. ‘What in the hell does she do?’ he wondered. The door at the end of the hall was reinforced and even there it had dings and dents in it.

Andrew pulled what looked like a small retractable projection screen out from an inside pocket of his white coat. He unrolled it and held it against the door and suddenly it appeared to be a window into the room beyond. Jesse chuckled to himself, this one he did invent and owned the patent for. He was a bit surprised they had one here at Dignity. The amount they got to fund this place must be larger than he realized.

Inside the room was a young woman, early twenties, very beautiful but disheveled, her hair was everywhere, her clothes were unkempt. She sat on the floor gripping her knees, rocking back and forth, in the middle of a debris field. As they looked in she suddenly looked right at the door and a tremor went through the hallway, he heard the creak of X-20 allow bending. He turned and looked at Andrew as he rolled the viewscreen back up. He motioned for Jesse to back away with him.

“Her name is Heather Fines, she’s an advanced mind but not like any we’ve really seen before, very powerful but no control. Almost no telepathy, just enough to sense when someone is nearby. Ridiculously strong telekinesis that is almost unfocused. She doesn’t lift things she throws them.”

“How has she been contained till now?”

“Her powers weren’t this strong before. She’s had some sort of secondary trigger. She was found two days ago under a fifty-seven car pileup on the expressway. She was in the middle of a perfect circle of debris none of which had entered her zone.” Andrew pulled a newspaper clipping from his pocket. “She was seen by some of the walking injured from the accident and they assumed she was responsible because she was a powered. She wasn’t, drunk truck driver if you can believe it. But they formed what was essentially a lynch mob and went after her.”

“I can see where this is going,” Jesse interrupted, “what happened to them?”

“Well, let’s just say there were more hospitalized from that then from the accident. Jesse, that’s not the biggest thing. While she was,” he stopped for a second, straining to find the right word, “dealing with her attackers, the pavement of the expressway cracked for a mile out from where she was. In the last day she’s made people across the entire complex think we are having earthquakes.”

“My god, a range like that… telepathy yes but TK?”

“She must have some control on a subconscious level. She didn’t kill anyone, lots of bruises, lots of broken bones, but not one crushed skull or rib cage. In fact no one had anything I would consider permanent damage.”

“Are the holographic systems in there intact?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Well if not I will need to come back with additional equipment. If they are I can tap into them and talk to her before I go.”

“Does that mean…”

“Yes Andrew, I think I, and Force Ops, can help her. He couldn’t wait to get back and let the others know, he pulled a Harold with this one. He could just see the look on Caleb’s face now.

__________

How many damn cage matches does it take to recruit a Force Ops member?’ Olivia asked herself in a private joke. ‘We already have Muscle Malone, now…’ she almost growled deep in her throat, the man in the seat next to her looked over briefly but seeing her expression turned back to the match.

‘I can’t believe this, of all places, is where Elaine ended up’. This wasn’t an arena, or a stadium, this was a dingy warehouse with ring set in a steel cage set in the middle. Underground cage matches for the patron more interested in blood and guts. She looked over at the one weak ass healer they had. They had just finished stabilizing the last loser, she got up shakily but blood still dripped from various small wounds and bruises still covered her. ‘They wouldn’t heal her fully even if they could’, she realized, ‘It’s not that kind of place, they want to see damaged goods’.

A harsh whine interrupted her thoughts as the announcer started to call the next match, the feedback on the microphone was ridiculous. This was the match she was here to see. ‘Finally’, she thought, ‘get this thing over with, let me grab Elaine, and let me get out of here’.

“Now entering the ring,” the announcer’s voice was amplified too loud for Olivia’s tastes, “an up and comer with a record of twelve and one.” The announcer varied his pitch in a crescendo leading up to her stage name. “The woman… known… only… as…WRATH!!!”

She entered to thunderous applause from all around. She was unmistakable to Olivia despite being in a full bodysuit which covered her face and was laid out with what looked like a stylized fanged mouth set in a rictus grin. ‘Well she’s as tacky as ever’, she compared her to her memories of four years prior, ‘let’s hope she’s as good in a fight’.

Olivia didn’t really pay attention to what the announcer said about Elaine’s opponent. She didn’t care much about her and nothing he said would give her any insight into her powers. Nothing to let her know what sort of challenge Elaine was facing. She simply watched Elaine standing there in the red bodysuit and waited for the bell.

Elaine didn’t disappoint, she was as good as ever, maybe better, at least well prepared for her opponent. The woman she faced, called herself “Fine Vine”, by the chants of the audience, vines snaked up her arms and whipped out to entangle her foe. It probably made her very popular that her outfit, which consisted only of strategically placed vines and leaves, left almost nothing to the imagination.

As the fight started, Elaine never let herself be caught. She dodged out of the way of every blow. She ducked under, sidestepped, or caught each and every vine that shot out at her. Each strike at her led to a perfect series of counterstrikes. Her opponent never had a chance. The match didn’t even go one round before Elaine had her tied up in her own vines.

Somehow she had looped the vines around her opponent’s neck and then flung them over a protruding bar from the cage. She pulled and Fine Vine was dangling in mid-air. She was grabbing at the vine that looped around her neck and held her suspended in mid-air. It was all she could do to prevent herself from being hung.

Elaine paced back and forth in front of the body then raised her hands up to the thunderous applause of the depraved crowd. They wanted blood. When the cheers had started dying down Elaine crouched in front of her opponent who was still twisting in mid-air desperately trying to free herself. Suddenly Elaine leapt up rising higher than Fine Vine and as she peaked in her trajectory and started to descend, she punched Fine Vine right in the face so hard the crack reverberated through the arena, blood and teeth sprayed from her mouth staining the mat. The cheers for this violent act on a helpless foe redoubled and nearly deafened Olivia.

Fine Vine dangled by her neck unmoving. Olivia was about to jump up to the ring when Elaine cut her down and checked her for breathing. She called the healer in and stood over her till Fine Vine started to get up. Elaine prodded at the healer who took Fine Vine’s head in her hands. When she was done Fine Vine smiled at the crowd, from her front row seat Olivia could see she had a full set of teeth again.

Good,’ thought Olivia, ‘at least she hasn’t become a complete immoral bitch in here. If she had become that depraved I doubt we could use her. Of course not all the others would agree with that’.

After the ring had been cleared for the next match Olivia got up and walked down to the doors Elaine and Vines had exited through. What passed for security flanked the double doors, two toughs, probably supers who fought here. They actually tried to stop her. She reminded herself why she was here and then decided to have some fun anyway. She continued walking through the doors stepping carefully over their unconscious bodies.

More security personnel flanked the door to Elaine’s combination locker room and dressing room. These guards tried to stop her again, she only smiled at them.

Elaine answered Olivia’s knock at the door. She dropped the guard’s body as she opened the door and smiled at her. She walked in and closed the door behind her and was greeted by a near tackle hug from Elaine, who was in a silk robe now, her loose black curls flowing over a face that was a bit too angular to be called beautiful. One day men would probably describe her as handsome but for now her bubbly personality obscured it all anyway.

“Dean Townsend,” Elaine greeted her as she finally broke the hug. “This is a funny place to see you. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? And don’t tell me you just came to see the fights.”

“I haven’t been Dean Townsend for nearly as long as you haven’t been an HCP student Elaine.”

“Really? I hadn’t heard. So are you Knightingale again? I hadn’t heard that you came out of retirement but I don’t really follow the super set anymore.” There was just a touch of self-recrimination in her speech but she did hide it well.

“No, not that either,” she said with mild surprise. “And how did you learn I was Knightingale?”

“Please, all you HCP staff think we can’t figure things out. I might not have been a subtlety major but Shawna was and she was my best friend. And yes she came to me and unfuzzed my memories of her right after I failed out.” She smiled a wicked smile, “what are you going to do? Take away her certification?”

Olivia sighed, “You didn’t fail out, you just didn’t advance. You could have tried again.”

“Sure I could have. How many actually get back in after being dropped from the program? One, maybe two a year, and that’s across all four years and all five schools?”

“I kept telling you that you had more untapped potential, I kept telling you that you could improve.”

“Really, I guess that’s why I was number sixteen going into senior year. What was my final rank in the program overall? Oh, that’s right seventy-sixth, just missed, sorry.”

“Why are you here Elaine?”

“What do you mean why? I have to make a living somehow.”

“Sure, and if cage matches are your thing, you could have joined the ULCL, you didn’t. You joined an underground pit fighting group. It’s a dirty sport, a deadly sport… an illegal sport. So I will ask you again, why are you here?”

“Why do you think I’m here? I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to be that one a year. Damn it, I’m trying to get back in,” she shouted at Olivia in frustration. “I wouldn’t gain anything in the ULCL, too regimented, too many rules. It doesn’t train me for the street.”

“And this does?”

“Better than you did,” she shouted at Olivia, “Better than a program that gave up on me.” She was angry now, fuming over the old insult.

“Yeah well if it’s any consolation you were one of my main motivators for leaving the HCP.”

“I was?” Elaine had genuine shock plastered across her face.

“Yes, you were more proof to me that the system was all wrong.” Olivia started pacing and waving her hands. “Why do we only advance fifteen to the final year? Why do we only graduate ten? Why is there a hard limit instead of a level to reach? The answer comes down to money, insurance companies, and the fear that a level which more supers could reach will lead to lessening of the requirements and ultimately economic disaster.”

Elaine giggled, the anger gone, the shock gone, her capricious nature showing. Olivia shot her a dirty look. “Sorry, it’s just that you used to pace like that with your hands flying through the air when you used to lecture us in ethics.”  

“Really? I hadn’t realized.”

“No one would tell you. We called it the Townsend Shuffle. I think there was a video of you doing it sped up and set to music. You can probably find it on YouTube.”

“… students… respect…” Olivia muttered under her breath, but then looked up smiling and with a twinkle in her eye. “Well it being on YouTube is great. I have a friend who should be able to track down the poster in a few minutes. Maybe I’ll be visiting another old student soon.”

Elaine laughed. “Seriously though, all that stuff you were just saying about HCP, is it true?”

“Well, is it absolute gospel?” Olivia asked rhetorically. “No, of course not, but it is fun to argue over a beer.”

“Speaking of beer, would you like a drink?”

“Sure,” she said and gratefully accepted a cold amber colored bottle from Elaine who took one for herself as well.

“OK, you know why I’m here. So why are you here?” Elaine asked taking a swig from the bottle.

“I have a new job.”

“And what’s that?”

“Force Ops recruiter,” she answered and was promptly covered in a froth of beer that shot out from Elaine’s mouth.

“Oh god I’m so sorry. Don’t surprise me like that.”

“I suppose I deserve that,” Olivia continued, wiping the beer from her eyes.

Elaine took another swig and swallowed it this time before speaking. “So you got a swanky new job and figured you might as well use your connections from the old job to find some new recruits?” Elaine actually laughed in Olivia’s face. “Not interested. Even if I weren’t doing well here if I couldn’t have the gold medal I certainly don’t want the booby prize.”

“Step back a second. Yes I am here to see about your interest. No it’s not to make myself look good in a new job. I’ve had this job ever since I left Korman, three and a half years ago. Let’s see you failed to advance what? About four years ago?” She waved her fingers in the air like she was doing math. “Hmm that’s at least three years, figuring for some settling in time during which I could have come and talked to you if that’s what it’s about.”

“So what is it about?”

“Come on Elaine, you aren’t stupid or I wouldn’t be here. What do you think it’s about?”

Elaine squared her shoulders and her face took on a resigned look. “Far From Noble.”

“Give the girl a prize.”

“So now you want me to join? Sorry Dean, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why not?”

“I failed out of HCP,” when Olivia looked like she was about to object to the wording Elaine continued, “all semantics aside, I failed out. I’ve come to terms with it, accepted it, moved on. So now that there is a threat like these crazy people you come looking for me? If I’m not good enough to be a super hero then I’m certainly not good enough to go after that lot.”

“Why did you fail to advance in HCP?” Elaine looked at Olivia with frustration when she asked the question. “Alright,” Olivia corrected. “Why did you fail out?”

“Let’s see,” Elaine replied with mock strain trying to remember. “Oh yes,” she said, clearly quoting from memory. “Trained reflexes and enhanced physical form make for an excellent power set, well suited for planned missions. However the random nature of hero work makes the need to study one’s opponents prior to engaging them too great an obstacle in the performance of one’s duty. Throughout the first three years of the program you were encouraged to learn new ways to use your powers in order to decrease this dependence and you were unable to. As such we cannot recommend you for advancement to the fourth year at this time. We encourage you to continue your training and reapply for a fourth year spot at a future date if these issues can be resolved.”

“And?”

“And what?” She shouted at Olivia, “Nothing has changed. My powers are what my powers are. But I am better at using them.”

“Are you? What was your combat ranking at the end of year three?”

She said something under her breath that Olivia couldn’t quite hear.

“Number two overall, right behind… right behind Elan.”

Olivia remembered Elan well, graduated first in the class one year later. Died at Meredith Falls.

“Yet despite the high combat rating the program chose to drop you. Highest combat rating ever dropped going in to fourth year.”

“Thanks for that wonderful walk down memory lane,” Elaine said dripping in sarcasm as she went and opened the door expecting Olivia to walk through it. “Maybe next time you visit we can talk about your last mission, the one that led you to becoming a teacher.”

That last barb stung but Olivia went on, not moving toward the proffered exit. “You were number two against people who trained to fight other supers every day, the people most motivated to train every day.”

“Your point?” asked Elaine, clearly getting annoyed.

“Who is your loss to?”

“What?”

“Your loss,” she repeated, “the announcer said you were twelve and one, now thirteen and one. So with all your training and the time to evaluate each of your opponents and train your reflexes against them, who did you lose to?”

Elaine laughed so hard she nearly fell over. “That’s going to be your argument, that I lost one fight even though the situation should be perfect for my powers?”

Olivia didn’t respond.

“Oh when you were Dean you would never have been so unprepared. I lost to Menhit, everyone loses to Menhit.”

“Menhit?”

“Heh right I’m not used to talking to people who don’t follow the sport. She’s the best of us. Takes her name from the Egyptian goddess of war. It translates to ‘She who Slaughters’. She said she was fed up of the amazon references super strong women end up with and didn’t care if anyone knew what her name meant.”

“She’s good I take it?”

“She’s unstoppable,” Elaine said with a bit of her normal bubbly self coming through again. She glanced at the clock and said, “come on, she’s fighting soon. Let’s go to the box.”

Elaine led Olivia down a hallway to a dingy room with a glass window overlooking the warehouse floor. The offices of the warehouse she realized, not much had been done to make it a high rollers box, though a man sat at a desk taking bets from several people waiting for the next bout to start.

“Has Menhit fought yet?” Elaine asked one of the men standing around watching and drinking a glass of Bourbon.

“No, they just announced her match though,” he answered, “should be any minute.” He glanced at Elaine in her robe and leered. Olivia walked up to him reached out with her left hand and he suddenly stiffened. She waved a single finger from her right hand in front of his face in an age old gesture showing he was being a bad boy and then she let go and he stalked away muttering under his breath.

Elaine laughed again at the exchange. “I can take care of myself you know.”

Suddenly she pointed through the window at a competitor coming into the ring. “This will be a good one,” Elaine added. “Raina, that’s Menhit,” she said by way of explanation, “got pissed the other day and ended up challenging the Sisterhood. That’s a group of three fairly high power supers. She’s going to fight them all at once.”

It was a short wait as the Sisterhood entered the ring. Menhit was every bit as good as Elaine said she was. Olivia was of the firm opinion that you could drop her into a fourth year HCP class and she would probably graduate. She was tall, dark, and exotic looking, she blended Middle Eastern with South American, it was the striking look seen on many Hollywood starlets but overlaying a body that showed tremendous strength without actually losing any feminine qualities.

Watching the fight even Olivia was impressed. She had quite obviously trained as hard as any HCP student did and she was incredibly strong and tough. Easily demolition class, better than most strongmen… or women.

She made short work of all three cage fighters who came up against her. For her last opponent she literally twisted the bars of the cage around her arms and neck to hold her while she delivered the coup de grace.

“Why is she here? She would make a fortune in the ULCL.”

“She isn’t interested in money, it’s the challenge she likes. She also doesn’t think much of a fight where you aren’t taking your life in your own hands. I think she’s a bit morbid that way.”

“Elaine, I have to agree she is impressive. I didn’t think anyone in this league could bend the bars like that.”

“Well, the bars aren’t the same stuff they use in the ULCL but… yeah it’s impressive.”

Olivia looked closely at her former student. Was that a bit of jealousy creeping into her voice?

“See, I told you.” Elaine said biting her lower lip and looking slightly wistful. She shook her head no, “I couldn’t have beaten her, not on my best day. Wouldn’t have mattered if I finished in the HCP program or not.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Olivia disagreed. “In fact I always told you that if you could overcome the reliance on training your reflexes to specific opponents rather than styles in general you would have beaten Elan and pretty much all comers your year.”

“So,” Elaine asked mockingly, “are you going to make me HCP worthy again if I join Force Ops?”

“Maybe, though I hope you would find Force Ops worthy of your time over HCP.”

“Fat chance!”

“But even if I couldn’t, we know exactly who we are going after and they supplied us with wonderful video of themselves for you to study and let yourself gain the reflexes needed to fight them. This is exactly what the HCP said you excel at.”

“So what?” she nearly screamed, “I still don’t want to be in Force Ops.”

Olivia ignored the outburst and continued. “I’ll make you a bet,” she knew Elaine could never resist a challenge, it’s how she ended up in cage fighting in the first place. “If you join, in one year you will be able to beat Menhit in a fair fight. If I lose the bet and you lose the fight, and it has to be an honest fight, I will get you an honorable discharge and… answer any three questions you still have burning up your brain about the HCP.”

“OK, let’s say for a second I was willing to entertain this crazy idea. In a year, how the hell am I supposed to fight Menhit if I’m in Force Ops and she is the reigning cage fighting women’s champion?”

“Simplicity in itself, I’ll just go recruit her too.”

 

Olivia was bone tired. It was so late that there were no other cars in the dingy parking structure across the street from the warehouse. She approached the driver’s side door of her Camaro, a bit amazed no one had tried to steal it and realized just how long she had spent with those girls. But in the end, she was successful. Raina… Menhit… she jumped at the offer to join Force Ops and face off against Far From Noble. She lived for this shit.

In her pocket Olivia had two signed and witnessed enlistment forms. One for Elaine and one for Raina. “Come for one, end up with two.”

“Isn’t that always the way?” a male voice added from behind a pillar.

She started to shift instinctively, she couldn’t believe she was caught like this, when she realized she couldn’t change. A sudden moment of panic hit her and then she realized that she recognized the voice.

“Jeffy? Is that you? Get your ass out here and give me a hug.”

The man walked out from behind the pillar, he was tall and lean, wearing a sport coat with a sweater underneath. Square framed glasses rested on his face and he had a warm smile for her.

“Jeffy,” she said excitedly running over and hugging him, “only you could give me a heart attack like that.”

“Really?” he said with a sigh as he hugged her back, “I wouldn’t want to do that. Are you still going to use that nick name? You know I hate it.”

“Yup, that’s why I will always use it,” it was an old argument. They had it every time they met up. “Don’t blame me that I was able to kick your ass without powers and you were stupid enough to make that bet. If I lost you would be calling me what?”

He sighed again, “Cuddlesworth.”

“Right. So what brings you to visit Jeffy, I doubt you are scouting talent in the fights.”

“No, I’m here to talk to you of course but I’m sure you realized that immediately.”

“Go on.”

“I know what you are working on.”

“Alright, I wouldn’t let anyone else know that Jeffy. I trust you. Others don’t.”

“Don’t worry, while I have reservations and concerns, I can’t imagine this not going forward at this point. That’s not why I’m here.”

“Get to the point. I swear every freaking Dean’s conference was just like this. All of us trying to out mystery the others. Just say it straight Jeffy.”

“The point, hmm how novel,” he considered it and moved on. “Right,” he agreed with her desire to get this done, “I have a recruit for you.”

“One of your students?”

“Former student. Protégé you could say.”

“Jeffy…”

“I know how much Elaine meant to you as a student. Why do you think I waited for you here? Luke means every bit as much to me, maybe more. What happened to Lori… well let’s just say I have a number of empty bottles of Scotch that I shared with many friends. Esme was very hard hit by it, she trained her.”

“Jeffy…”

“No, let me finish before you argue.” She waved off and let him continue. “He’s lost, he needs a new focus, and while this may border on a quest for vengeance, I can’t see anything else that isn’t going to end with him dead.”

Olivia looked at his eyes and nodded for him to go on.

“Luke is one of the best. In some ways I saw him as my successor.” He stopped for a second as if it was hard for him to go on. “He needs this. Olivia, I’m asking you as a friend, a former colleague, someone who understands exactly where I am coming from on this. Include him in your group.”

“Are you done?”

“Yes, go ahead and argue now.”

“No argument,” she said handing him a business card. “Send him to this address tomorrow. That’s my California office. I assume he’s still out there?”

He started to laugh, “I flew out here in a coach seat between two overweight smokers who reeked of cigarettes and have to look forward to the same going back, crowded, uncomfortable, utterly annoying. I came here ready for a fight, and that’s it? You just give in?”

“Oh Jeffy,” she smiled a wicked grin, “you know it’s the only way you could beat me in a fight.”

A Calculated Response: Chapter 7

Chapter 7:

Medical matters

A nurse escorted Daryl down the clinic hallway. On both sides he passed exam rooms some with doors closed and charts outside, others with open doors showing examining tables and various bits of a physician’s tools of the trade. At the end of the hall she knocked on an office door and then popped her head in before anyone answered. The door had an inset frosted glass window with black lettering that said Andreas Nichols, MD.

“Doctor, a Mr. Wellington is here to see you. The front desk said you were expecting him.”

“Yes Jill, send him in.”

She turned back to Daryl and gestured him into the room. It was a cluttered office, stacks of paper were everywhere. A lopsided pile of journals sat on the floor next to the desk looking for all the world like it was about to topple over. There was just enough clear space on the desk itself for someone to put a notebook down and write and just enough for the person sitting behind the desk to see anyone who sat in the chairs opposite them for visitors to sit in. There were two chairs but one of them was also piled with more papers.

“Please sit down,” came a deep voice from the other side of the desk, “I’ll be right with you.” Daryl couldn’t actually see who spoke, they were completely obscured from the angle he entered the room from.

Not safe’, he thought to himself, ‘if anyone were trying to kill him he wouldn’t even know to duck’. Of course this was a well-respected physician, loved even. Even Daryl had heard of him and that was saying a great deal. ‘He’s not really one of us, who would want to hurt him?’ the question sprung unbidden to Daryl’s mind but he had any number of answers to it.

Daryl took a seat in the uncluttered chair, taking care not to disturb any of the piles around him. From here he could see between the stacks of papers and journals and look at the face of the man he came to see. Dr. Nichols was not as old as he expected, he looked about fifty, which was young for a man of his accomplishments. Of course with healing you never can tell. He had a short beard and his brown hair was speckled here and there with grey, he wore glasses with small rectangular gold wire frames, he was furiously writing on a sheaf of papers. The only other thing on this lone clear area of the desk was a single picture frame, it faced toward the desk’s occupant and Daryl couldn’t tell who or what it was a picture of.

He sat there waiting for further acknowledgement from the doctor but the scratching of the pen on the papers was the only sound to emanate from him. “Sir,” he said breaking the silence, “Harold sent me to speak to you.”

“Yes, yes, just a moment,” he replied in an annoyed tone. “Harold always wants favors on his time. He knows I’m busy and can’t simply drop everything at a moment’s notice like he expects.” He turned to another paper and made a few marks on it before looking up. “Why do you think he sent you instead of coming himself?” he asked Daryl with a grin on his face which made him look even longer.

Daryl laughed at the question. While there likely was a piece of that in Harold’s assigning this visit to him, there were many other reasons. He doubted this doctor knew all that much about Harold so he kept those reasons to himself. “How much did Harold tell you Dr. Nichols?” he asked cautiously.

“Hmmph, a damn sight more than you expect he did,” the annoyance was again written on his face. “Harold knows not to keep secrets from me. It doesn’t work well with getting my cooperation. The bigger question is how much did he tell you?”

Daryl shook his head, “look we can sit here all day playing ‘I know more than you do’ or you can actually tell me what you know. If not, we can just sit here until Harold walks through the door having sprained his ankle outside your office or some shit and needing to see a doctor.”

The doctor laughed and slapped his knee almost knocking over a stack of papers. “Yeah that’s pretty much how we met in the first place. I didn’t have an office then and it was a gunshot wound not a sprained ankle. Harold kept muttering about how he never gets shot, he seemed almost more confused than hurt.”

“Yeah, typical.”

“Anyway to answer your question,” he said sliding one of the piles of paper over to reveal a button inset into the wood of the desktop. He pressed the button and Daryl could just make out the hum of a white noise generator. “I have TS and SCI clearance and on top of that I have Yankee White Omega clearance,” he looked directly at Daryl, “just like everyone else.” Daryl didn’t fail to notice the almost never used confirmation signals the doctor was showing him.

“Damn it Harold, how many times are you gonna pull this shit on us?” he asked to the air. “Sorry Doc, someday maybe I will learn the extent of what we belong to.”

“Yeah, don’t hold your breath for that,” he said with understanding, “I’m good at keeping people alive for extended periods of time, but not that good.” He emphasized the words ‘that good’ just a bit too much. ‘Either he’s had to deal with this aspect of Harold’s annoying personality before’, Daryl thought, ‘or he actually is a damn good healer… maybe both… knowing Harold, probably both’.

“Alright Doc,” Daryl decided to take the bull by the horns, “I don’t know exactly what Harold told you. But he told me to come speak to you about finding us healers to enlist in Force Ops. Does that about cover it?”

The doctor turned to one of his piles of papers and ran his finger down the stack till he stopped at a manila folder about a third of the way down. He deftly pulled the folder from the pile barely disturbing the papers resting atop it. He handed the folder to Daryl.

“This is a list of every known healer in the United States and its territories,” he said in a matter of fact tone. “It also includes many healers unknown to any other government agency.”

“Looks extensive,” Daryl said as he glanced from page to page in the folder.

“Over seven hundred and fifty,” the doctor replied, again in that matter of fact tone.

“Mind if I ask how you got this?”

“Hmm, well to start we have the entire list of supers the DVA keeps track of, that gives us anyone in a registered position, HCP students and applicants, heroes, villains, anyone with any interaction with the law, etcetera.”

“To start?”

“Well we felt that was likely incomplete,” his voice took on a lecturing tone, “healing doesn’t have to be showy after all. Once we have this list, we then investigated all sorts of potential healers. We checked on reports of faith healers, rumors of miracles, we spoke to herbalists and naturalists, homeopaths and followers of Eastern medicine. We talked to most of the crunchy granola sorts in the alternative medical paths.” He put clear disdain into the word alternative.

Daryl wondered briefly what Nichols would say if he told him he regularly went to see a chiropractor, but he didn’t voice the thought.

“Most of those were dead ends,” Doctor Nichols continued. “However, some gave us people with an unregistered healing ability. This is our recruitment list for the MCP. We are making it available to you.”

Daryl could tell that Nichols wasn’t happy that he was turning the list over. He looked like someone just asked him to give up his first born child. “Looks like a lot of potential people,” was what he said out loud.

“Not at all.”

“What do you mean? You said there were over seven hundred and fifty names here.”

“Yes, but a large number of those are otherwise occupied and won’t be recruitable. Some are heroes or in the midst of training, MCP or HCP, some are already in Force Ops. Out of the remainder, many won’t be interested. Even if they are interested, how many do you think are strong enough to fit your needs?” He stood up almost knocking over several piles and then started pacing. “How many do you think are psychologically capable?”

“I see your point.”

“Do you Mr. Wellington?” he asked in a manner suggesting Daryl saw anything but his point. “Do you really?”

“I think so,” he replied mildly. ‘This guy might be good at intimidating medical students, residents, and his colleagues’ thought Daryl. ‘But I don’t get intimidated. That’s a central fact of my life. I couldn’t do what I do if I did’.

“I don’t!” he replied with actual anger in his voice. “Most healers find the idea of taking life reprehensible. They find the idea of the military reprehensible.” His pacing sped up and this time he actually did knock over a pile.

“Calm down Doctor,” Daryl said keeping his tone mild, “I understand but this is necessary.”

Nichols just gave him a flat stare. “Necessary! The very word Far From Noble threw in our faces when they started this. Doctors understand when they need to amputate diseased tissue, it doesn’t mean they like doing it. Far From Noble needs to be stopped. I understand that too. Doesn’t mean I like healers having to be trained to kill.”

Daryl had enough of this smug doctor and his condescending manner. He didn’t get intimidated but he sure knew how to intimidate others. He grabbed the knife he had concealed under his jacket and pulled it out. It was eight inches of black coated steel with a serrated back and a blood groove running down it. Every time he pulled it out all he could think of was Crocodile Dundee saying ‘Now that’s a knife’. He leaned forward placing his free hand on Nichols’ desk and said “Shut up!” in his best command voice. He trusted to the white noise generator Nichols had activated to keep this exchange just between them.

Nichols looked at the blade in his hand his face turning pale. “What are you doing? I…”

“I said shut up!” he commanded again. “Now you are going to stop trying to lecture me and listen. I was going to talk to you later about security around here but clearly I think I’ve made my point on that one.”

Nichols swallowed hard and nodded. ‘Wait a minute’, Daryl thought as if he had a sudden realization, ‘I think I know why he doesn’t worry about security. If I push him too far this could actually turn very bad. God damn you Harold, at least I have some idea why I got picked for this assignment now’.

“Now I didn’t come here to threaten you, I came here to work with you. This isn’t a threat, it’s a visual aid.” Daryl suddenly brought the knife down and stabbed himself through the hand he had resting on the desk.

“Don’t…” came the cry from across the desk but it was too late. Daryl pulled the knife back out, a gout of blood soaking into the bottom most papers in some of his piles, and a deep furrow cut into the mahogany surface of the desk.

The doctor moved to help Daryl, forgetting immediately that a moment ago he pulled a knife on him. This time he did knock over two of the piles of papers. Despite his haste, before he could move around the desk the blood stopped seeping from Daryl’s hand and the flesh knitted itself together as if the wound were never there.

Nichols just stared at Daryl and the hand that a moment before had a gaping hole through the palm.

“I did this to make two points,” Daryl said, pressing forward while Nichols was confused and off-balance. “Well three if you count my concern for some real security,” Daryl figured there was no point in letting his suspicions about the good doctor slip.

“First, I do see your point,” he waved his now perfect hand at him flexing the fingers as he did so. “I understand it intimately.”

“I…”

“No don’t interrupt,” Daryl went back into the command voice for that one and received silence back in reply.

“Second, no one likes the fact that anyone, healers or anyone else, has to go to war and kill their fellow man.” This was a speech that he was used to giving at least. “But make no mistake, this is war, we are defending ourselves from an enemy who has ruthlessly attacked and savaged us. To do that, we need healers to keep the soldiers alive. And in this particular war we need those healers to fight, and perhaps die, right alongside the rest of us. If they don’t, and we lose this war, all the ethical quandaries in the world will amount to exactly nothing. Ask the dead about ethical quandaries, see what they tell you.”

“Far From Noble got exactly one thing right in their speech. It’s all about necessity,” Daryl stressed the word necessity. “Necessity in this case is imposed from the outside. We do what we need to do to defeat this enemy that has no morals, no ethics, and no scruples about using whatever they have to not just kill us, but to maim us, to make us suffer. Go try and heal their living victims and tell me what you think about healers fighting them.”

Daryl stopped but his eyes were still reflecting fury. “Now you can speak,” he told Nichols.

“I… I apologize. I didn’t know you were a healer. You realize you aren’t in that list?”

“I know,” Daryl replied declining to correct Nichols assumptions.

“I’m sorry I let my passions get the best of me.” He looked at his ruined desk and the bloody papers. “Well my secretary has been trying to convince me to just throw it all out and go digital anyway.”

He pulled out another smaller manila folder from one of the piles. “These are your best bet at healers to recruit.”

“What makes you say that?” Daryl asked cautiously. “Did you approach them?”

“No, nothing like that.” He said as he started to try and straighten out piles and save what he could from the now congealing blood. “Do you know of the super who calls himself the Observer?”

Daryl thought about the many reports he’d seen on high profile supers. “Yeah corporate guy,” he said recalling some details, “a consultant for large multi-nationals mostly, stays out of politics though. Reports are he’s an advanced mind. Broad range telepath but he doesn’t get thoughts exactly, he’s more like a combination of a Myers-Briggs test and a competency exam rolled into one. He comes in and tells you who are right or wrong in a company moves people around, makes sure your employees fit and are effective.”

“That’s right,” agreed Nichols. “We hired him for a full year to approach as many of that list as possible and get us details of who they were and where they would fit.”

“How in the world did you afford that?”

“The Medical Certification Program is as important as the HCP in its own way. At least some members of our government see and agree with that. In theory it’s the eventual solution to the rising costs of medical care.”

“Training a bunch of doctors who are also healers?”

“It’s more than that. We are learning how healing interacts with medicine, someday we hope to duplicate what healers do with technology. Then the limits come off the system. All the healers we have, even if they all had the highest possible power level couldn’t heal everyone. And most healers can’t deal with disease or genetic issues,” he paused for a second and stared at the picture that Daryl still hadn’t seen, his eyes showed a deep sadness, “the goals of the MCP are the elimination of human suffering from disease and injury, nothing is more important.”

Daryl simply nodded, he wasn’t going to start another argument or mention that there needed to be a human race left to heal for it to mean anything.

Nichols took up the conversation where it had been interrupted. “That folder contains the fifty that on review I think could fit into what you need.”

“What we need Doc,” Daryl corrected. “You are part of this, with your Yankee White Omega clearance.”

Nichols continued without comment. “The numbers are even more limited than the fifty you have there. Those are the ones who have the potential to fit, none of them are a guaranteed fit. Only the top ten in that folder would likely work in the end. Not all of them are classic healers.”

“Why cut out the other forty?”

“Some are in important or high-level positions. Some are still in training,” Nichols stopped Daryl before he could get his next question out, “and before you ask training this level of healer directly in potential combat situations isn’t a good idea. Just take my word on that. Please?”

“Alright,” Daryl replied cautiously giving some ground.

“Twelve of the best are assigned in two rotating groups to direct emergency support of the President and Vice President. None of them are the next Hallow but if our leaders are attacked, and aren’t killed instantly, they can save them.”

“Doctor, I can appreciate your insight but I’m going to want to review all fifty of these with you. I might want your help in approaching some of them.” Daryl could see the stubbornness returning to Nichols’ face but he continued. “Maybe some could move, maybe some are far enough in training to switch, maybe anything can change.”

“Mr. Wellington, I…” Nichols started but Daryl silenced him again.

“Doctor, I won’t force anyone to do anything. But I think the nothing is more important than having a world for human existence to continue in, whether there is suffering or not. We have some disturbing intelligence that Far From Noble may be the biggest threat to that we have ever seen.”

Nichols sat there staring at him for a long time before he slowly nodded. “It’s really that bad?”

“It’s really that bad,” Daryl nodded in affirmation.

“In that case there is one other healer,” he paused before continuing, “of sorts, that we should discuss. She isn’t on that list.”

“Why not?”

“Because Mr. Wellington,” he said with a sigh, “she’s not someone I was considering before. She didn’t make the initial list because she was never identified through any of the means I mentioned. She only rarely uses her abilities to heal people. It can cause… issues.”

Daryl looked at him confused by what he was saying.

“You see Mr. Wellington, she’s not my student, she’s my patient.”

__________

 

“It’s an MVA, pedestrian versus SUV, guess who won.”

The EMS crew wheeled a stretcher into the emergency room at University Hospital and pushed straight ahead into the shock trauma room. Fifteen beds were set aside here for true emergency cases, the kind of case that shows like E.R. and Rescue 911 made you think were all that was seen in the emergency room.

A team of doctors and nurses were ready to take over. “Get X-Ray in here, we need a complete spine series. Get the ultrasound to check the belly. Get two 16 gauge IV’s in, get a central line if you can’t get the peripherals right away. I want labs, get me a crit, chem 7 no wait get a chem 20, type and screen, and coags. Someone do a guiac and get me a set of vitals.”

Work proceeded rapidly around the victim of the accident. His clothes were cut away, he was hooked up to monitors and varies tubes were placed in his body. There was a tremendous amount of blood on the stretcher. His clothes were soaked in it.

“God damn, how is he still alive?” one of the doctors exclaimed. He turned to one of his residents and said, “Ron, go get me the story. Find out what the hell happened to him, he looks like he should be DOA but he’s still hanging in there.”

“But, Jack, I should stay here and help. I’m…”

He was cut off before he could finish his thought. “We have this Ron, now go get me the info I need. And don’t call me Jack, call me Dr. Keller.” When Ron didn’t move immediately he added, “Now, Dr. Boyd!”

Ron turned and walked out of the shock trauma bay to find the EMS crew who brought the patient in. He’d have to speak to them to get the story. He was sure he knew the answers that Jack wanted, he couldn’t explain it to him but he was sure he knew. Of course even if he could explain it to him Jack wouldn’t listen and he couldn’t make him listen. ‘God damn bastard thinks he’s god’s gift to medicine,’ he thought, ‘and really? Don’t call him Jack, the asshole was a resident alongside him just last year, just because he became an attending I’m supposed to forget two years of being residents together. The annoying thing is he could be a great doctor if he just would work with others’.

Ron walked over to the ambulance bay where there was a small waiting room for the EMS personnel. Inside he found the crew he expected as soon as he saw the condition of the patient. “Hey guys,” he said by way of greeting, “did you bring in that train wreck of an MVA?”

“Yeah,” answered Judy, she was the driver, cute too he’d been out with her a couple of times. Neither of their schedules was really conducive to dating but she was fun. “He was a bad one. Impact to the chest, then under the car and dragged thirty feet until the SUV hit a divider,” she shivered before going on. “He was trapped under there a good twenty minutes before we got him out.”

“Damn,” Ron swore. “Hey guys sounds like a rough one,” he pulled a plastic card off his ID lanyard and held it out to Judy, “why don’t you all go get coffee on me. There should be enough left on my call card for all of you. Evan, could you stick around? I still have a couple more questions and you’re the lead EMT.” He looked at Evan knowingly, “OK?”

“Yeah sure,” Evan replied as Judy grabbed the card and the others headed up to the cafeteria.

When they were gone, Evan started to say something, but Ron stopped him. “Not here, let’s go to my call room. We need privacy for this talk. How long do we have?”

“About fifteen minutes left.”

“OK then we’ll make it quick.”

The two of them walked down the hall where a series of small bedrooms were set aside for the overnight residents to try to catch some sleep when they could. They were almost never used in the ER but the medicine and surgery residents covering the floors could occasionally take a nap and every now and again when the ER had a slow night.

Ron tapped a code into the electronic lock of the door and opened it. Inside was a narrow bed, a small desk with a computer on it, one chair, and a door which led to a stall like bathroom. When they were both inside, a tight fit, Ron closed the door behind him.

“As soon as I saw that guy, I knew you had to have picked him up Evan.”

“Of course I picked him up. He wouldn’t have even survived getting him out from under the wreck if I hadn’t been there.”

“Evan, you keep doing this and you and your crew are going to get a reputation. Get a reputation and someone will start trying to figure out why. Do you want that?”

“What would you have me do Ron?” he asked with frustration and weariness showing equally on his face. “Should I have let him die?”

“No… no, of course not but… Evan why are you hiding it?”

“Because it’s not enough. You know that, you know my limits.” He looked right at his friend, “a better question is why are you hiding it?”

Ron suddenly looked about as tired and frustrated as Evan did. He sat down hard on the bed and put his head in his hands, rubbing them back along his hair till he got to his neck. “Look at us. A couple of god damned miracle workers and both of us afraid to perform miracles.”

“You may be a miracle worker, I’m not. At best I’m a hack magician.”

“Don’t sell hack magicians short, I’m still amazed by card tricks,” he laughed. He looked at his watch, “five more minutes and I need to get over there. That should give me five to help get him into shape before times up.”

“No, not this time, you need to do more than just get him in shape. His system is in full collapse. I’m surprised I was able to get him here alive. He needs major work or he’s gone.”

“Shit. I’ll be lucky if Jack lets me get close enough to do anything.” Just then his pager went off. He pulled it off his waistband and looked. “Shit… he’s coding.” The overhead speakers blared to life “respiratory to shock trauma stat for intubation.”

Ron and Evan ran from the room together, were around the corner and going through the automatic doors of the shock trauma bay almost before they slid open.

Inside there was chaos around the crash victim. Doctors and nurses were in constant motion, a crash cart was next to his bed and Jack was looking at an X-ray on the screen of the bedside computer.

“His mediastinum is widened on the chest X-ray, he’s got a traumatic dissecting aortic aneurysm we need to get him stabilized and into surgery,” Jack said.

“Where the hell is respiratory with the vent?” asked another doctor who was squeezing an ambu bag hooked up to a tube going into the patient’s lungs.

“Never mind that, keep bagging him and get the pads on him, if he goes into V-Tach we need to shock him out of it.” Jack looked up at the monitor as if expecting him to already be there. “Let’s roll to the OR, get whoever is on for thoracic down there now. We’ll get the patient prepped while they scrub. It’s his only chance.”

Evan leaned over to Ron. “If he goes to surgery, he has no chance,” he whispered in Ron’s ear. “His entire heart and aorta are being maintained right now. They open him up, it all goes splat. His whole chest cavity fills up instantly with whatever blood I managed to keep penned up in his circulation.”

Ron didn’t move. He just stood there as they started moving the bed out.

“Ron,” whispered Evan loudly in his ear. “What are you going to do? Let him die?”

It shocked Ron out of his inaction. He knew what he had to do. He could still try and do this subtly. He got to the bed and started to help push it along. If he could just grab a hold of the patient’s arm, he needed contact for so much damage.

“Dr. Boyd!” Jack’s voice rang out. “Where do you think you are going?”

“With the patient,” he replied, ‘not now Jack,’ he thought, ‘fuck with me all you want later but right now just let me go. Please just let me go’. “I was going to help get him to the OR.”

“No, someone needs to stay here, you are low man, it’s your job.” The others kept pushing the bed as the automatic doors opened to let them out alarms on the bed monitors started going off.

“He’s coding again!” yelled the doctor bagging him. “It’s V-Tach, get ready to shock him.”

Ron turned again to get back to the patient, he could help him. He knew without his help the patient was dead even if Jack and the others didn’t.

“Clear.” Everyone stood back and the patient’s body jerked suddenly as electricity coursed through him in an attempt to reset the electrical system in his heart.

“Still in V-Tach.”

“Again… Clear.” The body jerked once more, the rhythm on the monitors still in V-Tach

Ron’s senses reached out, he would need to touch him to fix this much damage but he could tell what was wrong with him from here. He examined the heart in more detail than EKG, echocardiogram, CT scan, or MRI could. There was no way they could shock him out of this rhythm, he was dead, it was just that no one knew it yet.

Dead unless I do something. Now!’ his thoughts one with his actions.

He moved toward the stretcher just as he heard them yell “Clear” again. Jack saw what he was doing and reached out for him. “Boyd what are you doing?” came his shout. It was cliché but everything actually did seem like it was moving in slow motion. His hands circled around the patient’s wrists just as the buttons to send another shock were pressed.

He could feel the electricity start to course through his arms, cause the muscles to start to spasm. He was completing a circuit, the electricity was arcing through his chest, right through his own heart. Current that could fix a bad rhythm and could also disrupt a good one. He could feel all the damage it was doing to him and he could stop it.

He turned his power inward healing himself, keeping his rhythm normal, undoing the electrical burns as they occurred, preventing his muscles from going into spasm. At the same time he turned his power outward. It flowed into the body in front of him, the body that was only alive because of Evan, and he healed it. Heart muscle regrew, blood formed faster than the body could possibly make it, the arteries and veins reknitted themselves. He repaired the fractured bones. He undid the damage to the brain. Even the abrasions to the skin. While he was there he cured a small cancer that was not yet noticeable in his colon, the damage to the liver he had done with alcohol, and the damage to the lungs he had done with cigarettes. If he was going to do this he was going to do it right. He exerted so much power he began to glow and the glow spread and enveloped the patient. How long he stood that way he couldn’t tell but when it was done the patient lived.

He stood up and took a step back from the body, he wobbled a bit, it was more power than he expended in a long time. Everyone stared, half at him and half at the patient now sitting up in the stretcher looking confused and pulling leads off his body. All around him were whispers and murmurs. “He’s a super… He healed him… What was that… If he could do that why’d he let Mr. Anders die…” Too many to count, too many to distinguish, exactly what he was afraid of. Only one voice truly registered.

“Dr. Boyd,” came the angry voice of Jack, “you and I will be meeting with Dr. Worth first thing in the morning. I assure you when that meeting is over, so are you.” He pointed at the automatic doors leading out of the shock trauma bay, “now get out before I call security!”

Dr. Worth was his residency director. His career here was probably over, and all for actually fixing someone. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, in the end he did neither. He shook his head sadly as he exited the room, confused murmurs and looks all around him.

Evan caught up with him before he exited the building. “What the hell was that?”

“I healed him.”

“Yeah I know you healed him. What was that with Dr. Keller?”

“Oh that, the end of my career I guess.”

“Why, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Sure I did.”

“How?”

“I told you, I healed him.”

“That’s doing something right!”

“Yeah but it’s also wrong.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Yeah I guess you wouldn’t know. You ever wonder why more healers don’t work at hospitals?”

“What? I always figured they could make more money outside the hospitals.”

Ron laughed. “Well that’s true. But no there are issues of liability. Liability for the patients we treat, liability for the patients we don’t treat.”

“Huh.”

“People sue hospitals when they have healers on staff and don’t use them and someone dies. They don’t care about the good the healers do. They don’t care that it might have been beyond the healer’s abilities. They don’t care that the healer might not have even been there, that they were asleep needing to recover their strength before they could heal again. No all they care about is that they couldn’t have the miracle.”

“But hospitals do have healers on staff sometimes. Some of them are very prominent doctors.”

“Right but the admission papers patients sign when there is a healer on staff spell out some very specific limits and liability waivers. They wrap it in so much legalese to protect them from these suits. The courts go along with it because it’s better to do that than to remove the healers from hospitals completely.”

“So they’re gonna get rid of you because the patient whose life you just saved might sue over it?”

“No they are going to fire and blacklist me because I just opened them up to liability for every patient that’s been seen here since I started two and a half years ago.”

Evan just stared blankly at Ron, shocked disbelief written on his face for everyone to see.

“You know, the most ironic part of it is no one I could help has died in my time here. I can’t cure really advanced cancers… well I can sort of… but essentially I can’t. And I can’t cure old age. The only ones who died couldn’t have been saved by anyone but Hallow himself,” he paused and thought about it for a second, “and maybe Willowbark.”

Evan still stood there mute and motionless. Ron used the simple expedient of grabbing Evan’s shoulder and steering him down the hallway to the exit. “I need a drink. Wait no, I really need a drink! In fact I don’t know that anyone has ever needed a drink quite as much as I need a drink right now. Care to join me Evan?”

“Ummm…” he started, slowly shaking off his lethargy.  He glanced down at his watch before actually answering. “Well, it’s ten minutes after midnight and my shift is over. So, hell yes!”

Ron led them out to the parking lot and to his car. Evan seemed a bit surprised.

“Ron, should we be driving? I mean we are heading out with the express intention of getting shitfaced. Why don’t we just go to Dr. B’s down the block?”

“You just gave the answer,” responded Ron, “Dr. B’s is down the block. Its clientele is from the hospital, doctors and nurses off shift. I don’t want to see anyone we know right now. As to driving while shitfaced, don’t worry about it. I don’t stay drunk. My power can rev up metabolisms, I can take someone from passed out drunk to sober as a judge in about twenty seconds. Of course you’ll never forget the experience,” he added with an evil chuckle.

The bar he drove them to had a couple of advantages as far as he was concerned. It was far from the hospital, and it was quiet. The noise of a lot of people was not what he wanted. He wanted a serious drunk, an end of the dream drunk, a drunk to match the monumental stupidity he put himself in.

He and Evan settled into a small booth in the back of the bar, food was available but he didn’t want any. When the waitress or bar girl or whatever they called them now came over he ordered Wild Turkey, bourbon was his favorite vice, well his favorite alcoholic vice. Evan ordered a whiskey sour.

“That’s an old man’s drink,” Ron said.

“Well I’m an old man,” replied Evan.

He looked over at him more closely and opened up his special senses just a touch. “Dude, your no older than I am,” he focused, “maybe a year or two younger. Early thirties isn’t old.”

“Well, let’s just say I’m prematurely aged then.”

“Aren’t we all?”

The waitress brought the drinks. Ron pulled out a credit card. “OK,” he said, “start me a tab. If, when we are ready to leave, you have replaced our drinks as soon as they empty, you can add a fifty percent tip onto our bill.” He looked up at her face, “How does that sound?”

“Just fine to me,” the waitress answered smiling as she took the card and walked away.

“OK Ron, there’s something here I don’t understand.”

“Yeah?”

“You are a healer, and from what I can tell a damn powerful one.”

“Right.”

“So why didn’t the hospital know? If healers train to be doctors all the time why didn’t you just register with them and go into residency with your powers out in the open?”

“Yeah, that is the million dollar question. And I have answers for it but they’ll probably sound pretty stupid to you.”

“Try me.”

“OK well first of all, most healers aren’t doctors you should know that.”

“I wouldn’t call me a healer, I’m just a patch,” he said shaking his head. “The things I don’t know about healers… well let’s just say I really know only a bit more than the average person on the street.”

“Alright, well let’s start with this. Not all healers are the same. You already know that. You are one of the weakest types, the patch, all you can do is preserve someone temporarily, you can’t actually heal damage but you can get them to a doctor or a healer or whatever so they can deal with it.”

“Yeah that’s about what I can do.”

“That’s incredibly powerful in its own way,” Ron added, “never forget that. That guy tonight owes you his life just as much as he owes it to me. You give time, that’s a precious gift.”

“Well the next level up are the stiches. Think of them as super surgeons, they pull things together and work around injuries. They are very good at trauma but can’t usually deal with illness.”

“Alright, I’ve met one or two over the years.”

“The next level are the accelerators, they rev up the body’s own healing ability to super level. That works great assuming the damage isn’t too great and it’s something that could heal naturally given time. An accelerator couldn’t have done anything for that guy I just saved.”

“OK I can see that.”

“They actually work really well with patches and stiches. Keep the person alive or get them healed to the point they live, then rev them up to let their own healing fix the rest.” He shook his head again, “most healers never learn to work together properly,” he said, it sounded like something rote that he memorized.

“Why would they have to, all the healers I ever hear about just heal,” Evan blinked owlishly at Ron through the drunken haze that was starting to take him. “Doeshent really matter how their power works,” he slurred at Ron.

“Sure it does,” Ron corrected him, “the healers you here about, the ones in the news, the ones in the HCP, those are the strongest of all of us. You think a guy who can only heal cuts and scrapes ever applies to the HCP? You think they ever make the news? Of course not,” he said answering his own question.

“Shuure,” Evan said, the slurring worsening so Ron reached out and gave him a little surge, halving the alcohol’s effect on his system. Evan shook briefly like he just dove into icy water then continued. “Wow… yeah what you said… that makes sense… wow!”

Evan looked a bit uncomfortable. “Can you excuse me Ron?” he asked. “I need to hit the head.”

“Sure Evan,” he smiled. “You go ahead.”

He waited a few minutes for him to returns and had another couple of drinks while waiting. When Evan returned he continued with his descriptions.

“The last major group of healers is the regenerators, that’s what I am and most of the great healers you hear about. We actually heal what can’t be healed naturally and we do it fast. The strongest among us can regrow limbs or replace a heart that someone tore out of the chest. Hallow can even reverse aging but he’s the only one ever who could do that.”

“Jeez, the stories about that are true?”

“Yeah they are. Oh and then there are always oddballs. People whose powers only work on a specific illness or injuries, absorbers who take away physical damage and hold it for later, self-healers, mind-healers who are half healer and half telepath, rejuves, reconstructors, microbicides, there are more exceptions than rules when you get right down to it.”

“OK so what does that have to do with healers being doctors?”

“I’m getting there. You need to see the stage before the play makes any sense.”

“Yeah right, get to the play. What did Shakespeare say? ‘The play’s the thing?’ Wasn’t that it?”

“Yeah, Hamlet,” he answered then went on when Evan clearly was getting annoyed. “OK so you have all these different kinds of healers but to the public we’re all just healers. What could you do if someone came up to you with a broken arm?”

“Yeah well I couldn’t fix it, I could make it functional for a while but it would wear off.”

“Exactly, we are all different in what we can do but to the public we are all just Healers with a capital H, miracle workers. They think we’re all Hallow.”

“That could be a problem.”

“So most healers don’t put themselves into the role of a doctor where they will often deal with things their powers can’t handle.”

“OK so what do they do?”

“They just hang out a shingle and take on cases they want to take on.”

“Wait how can they do that? Won’t they have the same liability issues?”

“You would think so but no. They fall into a series of exclusions there for any number of other things like faith healing, herbalists, people who think magnets or crystals heal people, etc. etc. They aren’t allowed to claim their abilities will work, though they all do. It’s like the warning you see on the side of herbs or dietary supplements. ‘These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Not intended to diagnose or treat any disease’, except that’s exactly why people buy them. It actually was challenged in court once the argument in defense of the healers was something like, ‘if all that crap which doesn’t work is allowed how can you stop something that actually does work?’ they actually listened to that,” Ron laughed. He stopped laughing took a drink and then laughed again. “Funny though, it’s the things that actually work that have the most problems with those laws. I think it would have been blocked if the public outrage at not allowing healers to heal people wouldn’t have been so huge.”

“OK, so the system is crazy. Why didn’t you just hang out a shingle?”

“A lot of reasons, too many to name, but here are the main ones,” he started ticking them off on his fingers. “One, I want to understand what it is I do. Healers who just use their powers don’t really ever understand medicine and I wanted to. Two, I wanted to help everyone, not just the people who could afford it. Remember if healers aren’t doctors they can’t take insurance.”

“Didn’t the Affordable Care Act add in some provision to cover the services of healers?”

“Don’t get me started about the Affordable Care Act. We’ll be here all night.”

“Anyway, there are other reasons. But in the end a healer is not a doctor and a doctor is not a healer and I wanted to be both.”

“OK so you wanted to be both and there are doctors out there who are healers, they must have gone through residency. So I come back to the original question. Why didn’t you just let them know you were a healer?”

“Well, I wanted this residency and it didn’t accept healers. Kind of stupid I suppose. I could have gone anywhere, Mass General, UCLA, Hopkins, anywhere. But then it wouldn’t have been me the program wanted. It would have been my power. I’m an MD PhD, trained at NIH, I have more publications than you would believe, but it would have just been about my power.”

“I didn’t know you were an MD PhD,” he looked at him closer, “for that matter I don’t really know all that much about you. If you hadn’t sensed my work keeping people from going belly up before they got to the ER and came to me, I wouldn’t have even known you were a healer. Where did you get your degrees?”

He looked closely at him through what was quickly becoming a drunken haze, ‘in for a penny…’, “Well… my diplomas say Georgetown.”

“They say Georgetown?” he asked unbelievingly, “Ron are you telling me you never really went to medical school?”

“No, I went to medical school, I even went to Georgetown.” He shook his head, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.” He looked around; the table was covered in empty glasses. “Shit, I’m drunk… no wonder I’m babbling.”

“Just finish, drinking is clearly an excuse to talk.”

“Alright… alright… just, just give me a second.” He stopped talking took a couple of deep breaths and revved up his metabolism. The alcohol processed through his system in seconds rather than the hour it would normally take. He developed a hangover just as quickly but cured his headache almost before it appeared. Evan stared as he watched Ron go from drunk to sober in front of his eyes. “Damn,” added Ron looking uncomfortable, “that always leaves me needing to pee.”

“No bathroom breaks. Answer the question. What’s the story with you and medical school?”

“Yeah, well… um… you see…”

“Just say it!”

“Alright, Georgetown is the site of the first MCP program.”

“Georgetown doesn’t have a hero program.”

“Not HCP, MCP.” Ron sighed, “Medical certification program.”

“What the hell is a medical certification program?” Evan asked a bit too loudly.

“Shh, keep it down Evan,” Ron ordered in a loud whisper while looking around. “God damn it, I knew I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.”

“No… I’ll be quiet,” Evan whispered back, a bit louder than a whisper but good enough for Ron.

“OK, you know almost no healers make it through the HCP right?”

“Yeah most can’t really handle the combat in the end.”

“Well this gives them an alternative. They get healer training, a medical degree, maybe even get a PhD which focuses on the study of healing and other super powers all at the same time. They also get special training in dealing with supers’ combat injuries and all the stuff a healer who goes through the HCP otherwise wasting his time would get without the need to waste three or four years only to fail out and get memory wiped.”

“No shit? Why haven’t I heard of this?”

“Because, it’s a god damn secret!” he said exasperated. “It’s only been in existence for six years. I was part of the first class. The plan was after the first four classes are out and they see where it’s going they were going to announce it and open up two more. I heard Harvard, Stanford, and Mayo were all in fierce competition for it.”

“With places like those, I’m surprised Georgetown was the first. No offense to your Alma Mater.”

“Yeah whatever,” he blew off the comment. “Georgetown got it because it’s in DC and the whole thing was planned among DVA, NIH, CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services.” He stopped and took another drink, suddenly wishing he hadn’t made himself quite so sober. “Anyhow, doesn’t matter. I didn’t exactly follow the planned path. I was supposed to go for one of those residencies you mentioned before and didn’t. Now my residency is about to be ripped away from me all because of a doctor who is just a small soul.”

“Sorry man. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure I will be black balled at every residency worth having at this point. I guess for me it’s either go back to research or hang out a shingle. What about you? You know your little trick of saving people ready to die is going to stop working so well when there is no healer waiting for them when you get them to the hospital.”

“Yeah, before you started only about one in four survived and not nearly as well as they do now. As long as you’re on when I come in they essentially survive. I suppose that one in four is still better than nothing.”

“Yeah,” Ron suddenly looked sad, “not when you’re looking at the loved ones’ faces.”

Evan’s expression also turned dark, “yeah, not then.”

The waitress brought over another set of drinks. Both of them lifted them and drank slowly, keeping their thoughts to themselves for the moment. The reverie was interrupted when the screen on the television set over the bar suddenly sprang to life. “Hey,” the bartender said, “there’s a new announcement.”

On screen the CNN logo came up and then faded to the corner of the screen as the face of yet another correspondent appeared. She was blonde and pretty but not too pretty, they didn’t want her distracting too much from the news she reported. “The bodies of over one thousand townsfolk from Meredith Falls have now been recovered, many are just parts of bodies and have been separated based on DNA evidence. All were found buried in basements and wreckage, it appears no bodies survived the blast that came at the end of Far From Noble’s attack.”

There was a strangled retching noise coming from across the table. Ron looked over, taking his eyes off the TV set. Evan was turning green and clearly choking down the urge to vomit. He opened his senses up but there was nothing physically wrong with him. Hurriedly he got up and helped him out of the booth and to the back door of the bar. There, in the alley behind the bar, Evan emptied his stomach of what looked like everything he ate or drank for the last week. When he was empty, Ron hit him with a small healing jolt to take away the residual nausea. He left the alcohol, he figured after something like that Evan probably needed it as a bracer.

“Man, I wish we had you around when I was in college,” Evan said by way of thanks as he sat leaning against the alley wall near the door to the bar.

“Nah you never would have learned that way.” He looked closely at his friend and carefully added, “What happened?”

“Too much to drink I guess.”

“Bullshit, you’re lying to the wrong person. Alcohol induced nausea and vomiting I would have sensed and I could have prevented. Try again.”

“Bad food…”

“Please, that was an intense fight or flight reaction to what you were hearing on the television. Anything physical I would have sensed and that’s the only mental thing that makes sense with the timing.”

“I…”

“Listen Evan, you just spent the last hour prying out details of my life, now it’s time to pay up. What the hell happened?”

“The… the…” Evan couldn’t seem to get started with a coherent thought, then suddenly he looked almost angry. “Look the way they found not much but body parts. I could have handled it if I were sober. I could have clenched my jaw and made it through and been torn up about it inside.”

“Evan?”

“I’ve been through it before Ron. I was in New York, thirteen years ago. I was a first responder. The only way I survived was because of my power. And… and…” he broke down in tears, “and I couldn’t save anyone! Not one person! Just myself! I… oh god it’s happening again but worse. This time it’s supers.”

Ron put his hand on the shoulder of his friend, kneeling in the vomit covered alley. He just left it there wishing he had a way to comfort him more. “It will be… no… it won’t be OK, but we’ll go on. The world has changed again. It changed in 2001 and it’s changed again now.”

“I… I feel so helpless. I felt so helpless then, it’s worse now. I’m not lying under a building, I’m alive, I’m intact, and I have my power. I could help. I could go to Meredith Falls and help. You could come, they could use a healer like you.”

“Evan, they’re all dead or damaged beyond healing. You saw the reports, none of the healers could help them and they have some there who make me look like a kid holding a pack of Band-Aids. You saw there was nothing left but body parts,” he paused, silent for a second, “no one could do anything with body parts.”

“I need to do something Ron, I can’t live like this again.”

“Evan, it’s survivor’s guilt. It’s normal, it…”

“No it’s not normal! You haven’t lived like this! I can’t sleep with a blanket because I think I’m buried under rubble again. I can’t let someone go when I probably should because… because it’s all I can do to feel like I could have helped.” His tears continued to flow, he was almost panting, his breathing coming in short bursts in between crying jags. “I should have saved them, I need to save them.”

“OK Evan, you need to save them, what do you want to do?”

“I… I want to help, too many people died, too many supers, maybe if I were there I could have saved some.”

“Unlikely but OK, it’s over for now, let’s hope nothing else like this happens again.”

“Ron, you saw the tapes, you heard that madman,” he rubbed his hand across his face to clear away the tears. “This is going to happen again.”

“No Evan, it won’t the heroes will stop it. The bad guys got in a surprise attack but they won’t let it happen again.”

“I’m afraid you are wrong Dr. Boyd,” a new voice interrupted loudly. “The heroes can’t stop it and unless something is done, it will happen again.”

A shadowed figure in a trench coat walked down the alley toward them. Behind him stood another man about thirty feet away, near the mouth of the alley. The figure slowly walked closer, soft soled shoes making little sound as he approached them and stepped into the circle of illumination created by the lights at the backdoor to the bar.

“Dr. Nichols?” Ron asked dumbfounded. “What are you?” he changed his question mid-sentence. “How did you?” and again “Why are you?” then he just looked at him with his mouth open to let in the flies.

“What am I doing here?” Nichols asked amused. “How did I find you?” he chuckled slightly. “And, why am I here?”

“Yeah,” Ron replied finding his voice again. “All of those. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I came to see you at the hospital and heard what happened.” He tossed his head in the direction of the alley mouth. The headlights of a car going by momentarily illuminated a man in a black suit waiting as if standing guard. “I called in a few favors, located you, and came to talk to you.”

“You came to find me because of what happened tonight?”

“No that was mere coincidence,” he stopped for a second, as if he suddenly realized what he said and then shook his head. “Anyway that wasn’t why I came. That was bad news though, for both yourself and the program.”

“Yeah,” he said dejectedly, “it was.”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted Evan, “but who in the hell is this Ron?”

“This is Dr. Andreas Nichols,” Ron supplied, “he’s the… uh… that is he…”

“What Dr. Boyd is so elegantly tripping over his tongue to get out Mr. Snyder is that I am the Dean of the MCP program,” as he said it he looked carefully at both Ron and Evan. “If you don’t know what that is,” he arched one eyebrow and stared at Ron, “you soon will.”

“And why is that?” Evan asked.

“Because,” he said, “I am here to offer Dr. Boyd, and yourself actually, a second chance.”

“What?” came from Ron’s mouth as “How do you know who I am?” came from Evan’s.

“Gentlemen, never mind the details, I am here to offer you a chance to solve your problems and at the same time help relieve the suffering associated with the recent attacks and maybe even fight back in your own way.” He paused with a questioning look on his face, “Is that something you might be interested in?”

“How, you aren’t going to get us into the HCP,” Evan shot back, “neither of us are hero material… well maybe Ron is. I’m not I was rejected thirteen years ago when I thought I could make a difference that way.”

“There are other options.”

“I hope this isn’t a corpies thing,” said Ron, “I’m not interested in selling my gift for the profit of some corporation.” That comment brought a proud smile from Dr. Nichols.

“No, you’re right, that won’t work,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t thinking of the PEERS.”

“Is this about HOPE?” Ron asked anxiously. “I remember you bringing in some of their healers during class. But, Dr. Nichols, I appreciate what they do, and I know they were at Meredith Falls but it doesn’t really solve the problem I created tonight.”

“Plus,” added Evan, “There’s almost no chance we’ll be in the right place at the right time, most of them are overseas.”

“No,” said Dr. Nichols, “not HOPE either. But there was another group who helped out in Meredith Falls and will be taking a lead in what is to come.”

Evan started to stand finally, but froze in mid-lurch an expression of amazement coming over his face. “Force Ops?” he nearly shouted, “you’re talking about Force Ops?”

“Who do you think is going to end up dealing with an attack against America?” Nichols asked them. “The military just like they did before.” He stood between Ron and Evan, both of them dumb founded. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders in a gesture of support or perhaps comfort. “And what branch of the military deals with supers?”

“Force Ops,” whispered Evan.

“You’re crazy,” said Ron

“No, fortunately, I’m still quite sane, it’s the world that’s insane.”

“Ron,” Evan said with belief in his voice, “I think this is a good thing Ron. I think we need to do this. It solves both of our problems. It gives you a place to practice medicine and healing, it gives me a chance to use my power and let those I use it on survive and a chance to make up for thirteen year ago.”

Ron stared at Evan with open faced astonishment. His eyes were wild, his movements shaky, “OK it’s time for you to sober up,” he said reaching for him. “This will only take a second. I’ll even give you some privacy to take a pee on the wall afterwards.”

“No, listen. Don’t you dare take away my drunk, it’s giving me clarity for once. What’s the expression? In vino veritas? Well this is one hundred percent Grade A veritas with a capitol V. It’s truth pure and simple.” A peaceful expression came over Evan’s face, “This is what we need.”

“He’s right Ron,” Nichols interjected, “this is what both of you need. And you are what Force Ops needs. It’s fortuitous happenstance that Mr. Snyder was here with you. Someone else would have contacted him tomorrow with the same offer.” He muttered “I’ll have to remember to let them know I already spoke to him,” under his breath.

“I can see how this might give Evan what he needs,” Ron said. “I can even see how it might give me something meaningful to do. What I don’t see is how in the hell it’s supposed to help me with the heaping pile of shit I buried myself in tonight?”

Dr. Nichols shook his head the way he would when a student gave him a mistaken diagnosis. The look told the unfortunate student who disappointed him that he was more upset with how he had failed so badly at teaching them. “Dr. Boyd,” he asked assuming the Socratic tone he used when about to ask a student one of those questions. “What happens to medical students who go to school on the military?”

“Huh,” the question surprised him but he started to answer it. “They do service time here and there during medical school, and when they graduate they…” Ron’s jaw dropped open.

“Go on.”

“When they graduate they do their residency in the armed forces.”

“Correct Dr. Boyd,” Dr. Nichols said proudly.

The grin that suddenly sprung up on Ron’s face left shit-eating far behind.

__________

Major Brendon Samuels stood staring through the window into a clean room. Inside men and women in white isolation suits worked on some of the worst pathogens known to man. ‘And some unknown to man,’ he added silently. He was in an observation room nearly a mile underground in Base 6, the top secret biological warfare laboratories of USAMRIID. Up in Fort Detrick all the defensive and political work took place but down here, down here was where the real investigations happened. Here was where every pathogen was dissected and twisted and examined for potential to be weaponized.

He was a man torn in many ways, he both hated and loved his job at the same time. The genetics of the pathogens fascinated him and scared him, drew him and repelled him.  A sixty inch flat panel on the wall displayed images of men and women suffering various deadly maladies. Some of those were being worked on not five feet away separated only by six inches of double paned high impact plastic. Well and some sophisticated automated equipment that would turn the whole place into a firestorm before letting one microbe escape.

Colonel Gaim was late. He was supposed to be here ten minutes ago and that was distinctly unusual for the colonel. He was about to send off a query to his admin staff when the door opened and he walked in.

Major Samuels snapped a sharp salute to his commander who returned it and said, “At ease Brendon. I’m sorry I’m late but after Meredith Falls I’ve been pulled into non-stop meetings as you can imagine.”

“Yes sir, I understand completely.”

“What was it you needed? Did you finally break through the damned coding bias issues?”

“No sir,” he replied frustrated to no end over the issue the colonel brought up, “this is unfortunately about Meredith Falls as well.”

The colonel looked tired, he opened his jacket and loosened his tie before answering, “you too?”

“I’m afraid so Colonel.”

“Well,” he said, sitting down at the small round table in the center of the room, “sit down and tell me about it. Everyone else has.”

“Sir, I’m concerned over one of the supers involved in the attack.”

“Which one? At least two seem to be biologically based, at least on the surface they do. Most of my meetings have revolved around the coming zombie apocalypse.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair, a habit that always indicated he was nervous. “I can’t believe how many people think all the movies are a conspiracy to hide the fact that there really are zombies.”

Brendon laughed. “Well sir, in a world where people fly or burst into flame or any number of other bizarre phenomena. How strange is it really to think that zombies could exist too?”

“I suppose so,” he agreed. “And enough with the sirs, we were graduate students together for god’s sake, if you hadn’t tried the HCP route I’d be saluting you. You do remember my name right? You haven’t been experimenting on a contagious form of amnesia have you?”

“No George, I haven’t. Though I may have forgotten,” he added deadpan.

George laughed loudly, “Oh I needed that,” he said. “Alright Brendon, hit me, tell me what you came to tell me.”

“George, this is the one I’m worried about,” he said and made the screen change to a clip from the Far From Noble video. It showed the woman in the isolation suit. “What she was doing looks like spreading intensely virulent pathogens.”

“Yes I’ve heard that theory, but analysis doesn’t show any method of targeting or spread, none of the survivors show any signs of unusual pathogens nor were there unusual pathogens found in any of the body parts that were recovered.”

“No, I realize that,” Brendon said agreeing with his boss. “Still, doesn’t this remind you of Rachel’s work?”

“In what way?” he asked a bit too aggressively.

“All she ever did was try to come up with fire and forget pathogens. Isn’t that what we are seeing here?”

“Come on Brendon,” he almost sneered, “I’m going to tell you the same thing I told her. The concept of a pathogen that you can release, let do its damage, and it self-destructs is ridiculous.”

“But…”

“No buts. These are living organisms. Mutation alone would defeat the idea eventually. All it would take is for whatever suicide failsafe you build into the system to mutate once and it could be a plague the likes of which humanity has never seen.”

“Yes but…”

“I said no.”

“Sir,” Brendon said returning to formality, “I feel I must officially ask for permission to submit my report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

“Really Brendon,” he said with tired disappointment in his voice, “is that the way it’s going to be?”

“George,” he replied with desperation, “you are tired and overwrought, you aren’t being objective.”

“Neither are you,” he shot back, his voice rising higher than a commanding officer should let it go, “you haven’t let the whole Rachel affair go since her death. Let it go Brendon, there was nothing you could have done to save her. She’s gone and her misguided work died with her.”

“Did it? George, look at this,” Brendon led George over to the flat panel. “OK these are some of the diseases Rachel was trying to weaponize. Group A Strep necrotizing fasciitis,” he pointed at an image of a man whose limbs were rotting off. “Ebola,” a wasted figure with blood pouring from his mouth. “Plague,” a woman with swollen growths in her groin and neck. “Mucor,” a heavy man with his face dissolving and his eye black and shriveled. “And Malaria, specifically the Black Water Fever form,” a twisted man with yellow skin, dried vomit was visible on his face.

“What’s your point?”

“These are all images of victims of this woman at Meredith Falls,” he clicked his pointer and an image of a woman in a white isolation suit with an enclosed breathing unit. “Don’t you see George, whoever this woman is she’s working on the same ideas Rachel had. Maybe Rachel passed on her work to someone else. She wasn’t exactly sane at the end.”

“Enough!” George said clearly losing his temper. “Rachel is dead, you saw the body, and you were at the funeral. We traced all her contacts. We destroyed all her notes. We didn’t even archive them to be sure they could never be passed on. It’s over, I know you are still feeling guilty but it… is… over…”

“Sir,” Brendon said ignoring George, “I formally request that my report be sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their consideration.

“Denied!”

“Sir, I request that I be reassigned as liaison to Force Ops who I understand will be heading the counter…”

“Denied!”

“But Sir…”

“No,” George was furious now, flecks of spittle emerged as he spoke, “You are to stop this immediately or face disciplinary action. Our unit, the CDC, and the DVA are all involved and no evidence of pathogens was found in any of the victims. End… of… story…”

“But Sir…”

“You are relieved of duty Major.”

“B…”

“Don’t make me call the MPs,” George added practically shaking.

“Yes Sir. I’ll be leaving then Sir. You’ll let me know when I should return?”

“Of course,” George replied starting to calm down.

Brendon headed for the exit.

“And Major,” George stopped him before he opened the door. “I don’t have to remind you that this is a matter of national security and Rachel’s work was placed under an SCI seal. That material is on the same level as the Nuremburg data, never to be touched. Any leak of this information will be treated as a matter of treason.” He paused, sighing before going on. “Am I clear?”

“Yes Sir!” Brendon replied and left the room, not so much as glancing back at the man who used to be his friend.

He stalked down the hallway toward the elevators which would take him back up to Fort Detrick as he stood waiting for the doors to the elevator to open a man he didn’t recognize stepped up next to him. That was a rare occurrence in Base 6.

“That was rough,” said the stranger, both of them still facing the elevator doors.

“What?” Brendon said turning to face him.

“That row between you and Colonel Gaim. Pity that, he’s a scared small minded man. It’s unfortunate that you wasted your time with those two years in the HCP or you would be in charge instead of him.”

Brendon looked up and down the hall before responding. No one was nearby. “You do know that this is an ultra-secure area? Everything is recorded. You know that, right?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Of course not.” Brendon looked at him more closely. Definitely no one he ever met. Six foot three, perfect teeth and hair, chiseled features, he would stand out in any crowd. He was wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a leather briefcase. He wore an ID tag which said Special Agent J. Alec Godwyn.

“No, really, none of this will make the tapes. Don’t worry. It’s taken care of.”

“Uh huh.” Brendon replied cautiously. “If you heard my conversation with Colonel Gaim, something I find difficult to believe in the first place, then you know I am under orders not to speak to anyone and living with the threat of a treason charge if I do.”

“Yeah not a problem,” Godwyn replied, “and if anything should happen, I know a good lawyer.”

The doors to the elevator slid open. Godwyn entered, “Are you coming?” he asked as he held the door.

Brendon entered the elevator with the strange man and the doors slid closed. This trip took seven minutes to get to the surface due to the scans and decontamination that occurred along the way.

“You know, not everyone sees things the way Colonel Gaim does,” Godwyn started again.

“I told you,” Brendon said keeping his response curt, “I am not speaking to you.”

“Clearly you are,” Godwyn replied. “Would it help if I told you that others believe the details of your report?”

“Just a minute,” Brendon spun on him, speeding himself up slightly with a small surge of adrenaline. “You’ve read my report? That was sealed and I never sent it to anyone except Colonel Gaim.”

“True, but that doesn’t matter. What an interesting tale. Proscribed research, bioweapons, love gone awry. Harlequin should buy it and make it into a romance novel.”

“Now just a minute,” he pointed his finger at Godwyn. An almost unseen drop of fluid now rested on his nail, just in case.

“Please don’t do anything we would both regret.”

Brendon paused, it was clear that Godwyn knew a hell of a lot more about him than he knew about Godwyn. Which thinking about it was nothing, his ID didn’t even say what agency he was a special agent for.

“Who are you?”

“J. Alec Godwyn,” he replied but didn’t offer to shake hands. “But you already knew that. It’s on my ID and you are nothing if not observant. Observant enough to know deadly diseases when you see them. Intelligent enough to put facts together about what’s going on.”

“So?”

“Well let’s assume you are right,” he took a printout from his briefcase and handed it to Brendon. “That’s an early printing of tomorrow’s headline.”

It read ‘Far From Noble Revealed’, and there was a grid of pictures of each member. Below the picture of the woman in the isolation suit read ‘BSL 5’.

“What the?”

“Fire and forget pathogens, wasn’t that the description you used? Can you think of anything more potentially deadly?”

Brendon mutely shook his head as he scanned the article.

“Look,” interrupted Godwyn as he was finishing. “Our time is short. But let me put this all in perspective. I think you should be transferred to Force Ops as a liaison officer.”

“That’s great. I…”

Godwyn raised his hand palm out to indicate Brendon should stop. “I think you should, unfortunately Colonel Gaim would have final say on that. He is after all your commanding officer. But there is an option that will block his threats about treason as well.”

“What?”

Godwyn removed two documents from his briefcase. “This one,” he said as he handed one to Brendon, “resigns your commission in the army.”

“Resign… what?”

“And this one,” Godwyn continued as if Brendon hadn’t said anything, “are the documents needed to enlist in Force Ops.”

Brendon scanned both pages quickly, they had less than two minutes before the doors opened. “Wait this says I will enter Force Ops with the rank of Private.”

“Yes well,” responded Godwyn, “you can’t very well enlist as a Major. The resignation papers do preserve your rank for purposes of retirement.”

“But…”

“Look Major, you can’t have it both ways. You believe in this? You believe in your report?”

“Well yes.”

“And you want to help deal with this problem?”

“Of course.”

“Then sign the papers. If not at best you are going on administrative discipline for two weeks I figure before Colonel Gaim calms down. Maybe more when he sees that article. At worst you are going to be tried and convicted for treason because you pissed off your old friend. Then you go to ‘Elevenworth’ and you know what happens there.”

The mention of the military prison for supers, even by that stupid nickname sobered Brendon up.

“What do I have to lose?” he asked out loud.

“Only your rank,” replied Godwyn.

“Sign here,” he pointed to a place on the first document while he handed Brendon a pen. “And now here,” he pointed to a similar line on the second document. Then he signed as witness and pulled out a notary press sealing the documents and making them official.

“Congratulations Private,” he said as he handed Brendon his copies.

Brendon was momentarily distracted as the doors opened and when he turned back Godwyn was gone. If he didn’t have copies of what he just signed in his hands, he would have thought that he hallucinated the whole thing.

__________

Daryl stood with Dr. Nichols on the steps of a brownstone in Washington DC.

“Sarah is a little shy around people,” Nichols said quietly. “She stands out as I’m sure you can imagine. Her brother does too as a matter of fact.” He put his hand on his forehead as if suddenly remembering something. “I didn’t tell you about Tom,” he added speaking quickly, “Tom’s a bit overprotective of his sister and…” he stopped speaking as the door cracked open.

“Hello Sarah,” Nichols said in a friendly manner. Daryl could barely see the outline of a person through the crack in the door she opened.

“I’ve brought the man I want you to meet,” he continued, “the one we spoke about on the phone. This is Daryl,” he pointed toward him by way of introduction.

“I’ve… I’ve changed my mind,” came a gravely woman’s voice from the other side of the door. “I don’t want to meet anyone.”

“Sarah,” the doctor said gently, “we spoke about this. I think this will be good for you, meeting someone new. Daryl wants to talk to you about a way you can meet lots of new people who won’t be judgmental, or if they are, how did you put it Daryl?”

“If they are, I’ll kick their asses from here to Sunday,” Daryl said without a trace of mirth.

Sarah laughed, even that sound was harsh as if she never laughed and her voice had to remember how it was done.

“Please Sarah,” Daryl said, “I’d like to meet you.”

There was the faintest motion from the figure behind the door, a nod Daryl thought, and the door opened into a dim entranceway.

The two of them went inside and Sarah closed the door behind them and walked off down a hallway. Daryl barely saw more of her, his eyes not having a chance to adjust to the dim light from the brightness outside. All he could tell is she was wearing a long robe or kaftan with a hood.

They followed her down the hall to a living room of sorts. It had piles of newspaper and magazines which reminded him of Nichols office. ‘They are her only connection to the outside world anymore’, Daryl thought in a moment of insight. There were two couches, a recliner, a coffee table on which a copy of the Washington Post was open to a picture of the crater at Meredith Falls.

The rest of the room held an old projection screen TV, a piano covered in dust, with an abstract life-size statue of something that looked like a man next to it. It was like something from cubism, all odd shapes and angles. But everywhere else throughout the room were shelves and shelves of books.

The most unusual thing about the room was that everything had soft padding taped down to corners and projections. It was like someone tried to baby proof the entire area.

“Please, have a seat,” Sarah said in that gravelly voice. She took the recliner leaving Daryl and Dr. Nichols to sit on one of the couches. He turned slightly to face Sarah which let him see the piano to her left, he still couldn’t actually see her well.

“That’s a lovely piano,” Daryl said to break the ice. “Do you play?”

“No, my brother used to,” she sounded sad, “but he can’t anymore.”

A slight shake of Nichols head told Daryl to stay away from the subject. “Dr. Nichols tells me you are a healer, but there is some sort of problem. Can you tell me about it?”

“You didn’t tell him?” she asked of Dr. Nichols accusingly. “You brought him here and he doesn’t even know? How could you?” she started to cry but the sound was more of a barking noise than sobbing. “Why would you do that?”

“You need to face people who don’t know Sarah,” he replied in a kindly manner, “it’s important for you to move on with your life?”

“So you put me on display?”

“Sarah, I…” before the doctor could continue his thought, he interrupted himself. “Now Tom, let’s not do something stupid.”

Tom?’ Daryl thought, ‘the brother? But he’s not’, then he realized. The statue started to move and put its massive misshapen hand down on Nichols’ shoulder.

“Sarah… Tom… please this is foolishness. You know I brought him here to help.”

“I think perhaps the two of you should leave.” Sarah said standing up again and walking over next to her brother… the statue, some sort of shifter, ‘no… that’s not it. What is he?’ Daryl wondered.

“Tom is it?” Daryl said standing. “I’m sorry we intruded upon you this way. But I’m not frightened or shocked, merely curious. What is it about you and your sister that makes you want us to leave? You’re supers, but so what, are you scared you’ll hurt us?”

“Really? You don’t know?” Sarah asked again. “You didn’t come to see the superfreaks?”

It all snapped into place for Daryl, superfreaks. It was slang, a slur really, for supers who had permanent body changes. Many supers had unusual hair or eye coloring, even odd skin tones. But this was different. Tom was massive and looked to be made of something… he took it for stone at first but looking closer it seemed more like horn.

“No, I came to meet you Sarah, because Dr. Nichols thought you might be able to help me.”

“Help you?” she cried with that barking sound, “I can’t even help myself.”

“Dr. Nichols said you were a healer, do you have something unusual about yourself as well?”

“Unusual?” she asked, the barks subsiding slightly. “You could say that.” She dropped the robe. She was wearing light pants and a loose half shirt under it. With the robe off he could see her entire body was crisscrossed with scars, old scars, fresh scars, faint and white, angry and red, blotchy purple. Parts of her hair were missing and the scalp beneath was also covered in scars.

“I see,” Daryl said quietly in response.

“Nature’s little joke,” she shouted at the ceiling. “I’m a healer, a wondrous healer, a magnificent giver of life. But I’m an imperfect healer. My healing causes terrible scaring which itself is nearly impossible for anyone else to heal. Who would want that?”

“My self-healing,” she continued, “is an order of magnitude higher than my ability to heal others but I can’t shut it off. Every little injury turns into scar. My muscles are stronger because that’s how they develop, tear and grow, tear and grow. But the rest of me? Look at me.” The barking started again and now that the robe was off Daryl saw she couldn’t actually cry, her tear ducts were scarred down. “Superfreak and powered all rolled into one,” she continued, “someone up there must hate me.”

“No Sarah,” Daryl said, “no one hates you.”

“Sure they do,” she laughed while the barking continued. “I can’t even kill myself and end it. The healing is too strong.” She pointed to her temple where a particularly bad scar was. “I put a bullet in my brain, right through here. It was closed before it came out the other side.” She turned and a much larger scar over the back of her head was now easily seen.

“I’m a monster, people look at me and that’s all they see.”

“Sarah,” Dr. Nichols started to talk but Tom squeezed his shoulder slightly and he stopped talking while he winced.

“Tom has it worse. They look at me like a burn victim but Tom is something out of a movie about alien invaders or something.” She pointed at her brother. “His self-healing is just as strong, maybe stronger. He’s definitely stronger than I am too. He can’t actually heal anyone else. But the worst part is instead of scar, he gets hypertrophic keloid. That’s what you get when a scar goes wild.”

“And his keloid is filled with dense keratin. That’s the stuff from your nails but his is about a thousand times as strong and thick, bullets wouldn’t even scratch that. He’s so strong he could lift that piano if it wouldn’t break apart in his hands. But he can’t feel anything. He can barely touch anything. He can’t play the piano anymore. Even if he could fit his fingers to the keys he doesn’t have the touch anymore. He’d just break it.”

She looked at him, a tear desperately trying to come out of her eye. “And he can’t speak, his vocal cords turned into the same stuff the first time he caught a cold.” The barking started again, “he had a beautiful singing voice.”

She dropped to the ground and where her leg hit the table Daryl could actually see new scar forming. This wasn’t his field, how did he speak to someone, two someones, who had nothing left?

He glanced around the room and an idea struck him.

“Sarah, it’s obvious you care about the world around you, miss it even.” He gestured to the piles of magazines and newspapers. He picked up the copy of the Washington Post.

“I’m just bored,” she replied, “there are only so many reruns of Law and Order or cooking shows I can watch during the day.”

“If you were bored you might read books, or play games, or do anything to while away the time. You read the news. You seek out information about the world you feel you aren’t part of anymore.”

“No, that’s not it, I…”

Tom let go of Dr. Nichols and stood in front of his sister looking down at her. He didn’t or, as she said, couldn’t speak, but he looked at her and nodded once.

“There are monsters in the world Sarah,” he said, “real monsters and they don’t all look like monsters.”

He flipped through the Washington Post that was still in his hands. He found what he was looking for and showed her a picture of De Sade. “This Sarah, this is a real monster. He looks like anyone you would see on the street but he took pleasure in driving hundreds of people at Meredith Falls insane. He made them kill each other, he made heroes kill other heroes, and he speaks for an entire group of monsters who look like men.”

“Sarah. I can’t say that I can help you but I want you to come and meet a friend of mine. Her name is Cindy and I think she can help tell you where you,” he paused and looked at the massive form standing next to her, “and your brother fit in with the world.”

“What can she do?”

“Well depending on what she says, she can give you a whole new way to look at yourself.”

“What’s that?”

“Monster slayer.”

A Calculated Response: Chapter 8

 Chapter 8:

Off the bus

 

Mickey was feeling a bit car sick, or perhaps a bit bus sick was more accurate. He sat in the fourth row of a beat up bus heading toward the start of his training in Force Ops. There were over twenty others on the bus with him, a very mixed group. Next to him was a young Asian American man in a polo shirt and khakis. He looked young, Mickey knew he had to be eighteen to be here but he looked even younger. He was a kid compared to Mickey, as were most of the people on the bus. He did see a few other older people before they were all herded onto the buses but he hadn’t spoken to anyone. Most of them hadn’t had the time to speak to anyone, even if they wanted to. He wasn’t sure he did, keeping to himself was probably the best thing he could do in the end.

A small convoy of three black buses containing the newest Force Ops recruits drove down a solitary road at a good clip. They were, he noted while looking out the window, in the middle of nowhere. He was on the third bus and the buzz of conversation showed that it wasn’t really clear to anyone in the bus why they were on the bus.

Mickey himself had been teleported from the recruitment center in New Mexico to the garage where the buses were waiting. He had seen others teleported in shortly after he arrived, presumably coming from whatever area of the country they signed up. Speculation as to why they weren’t directly teleported to their ultimate destination was running rampant.

“I heard the camp isn’t actually on Earth.”

“I heard it’s in another dimension.”

“I heard the area surrounding it is radioactive so we have to go in lead lined buses.”

“No that’s not it. The area can’t be teleported into, it’s part of the security system.”

The young man next to Mickey shook his head as he listened. “The only thing those reasons have in common is they’re completely made up and they’re all wrong.”

“Huh?” Mickey responded in confusion. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, I actually spent some time researching what we will be going through before I even considered signing up.”

“Yeah, is that so?” Mickey said sarcastically, “What did that tell you?”

“The reason is simpler than anyone here would credit,” he answer, either ignoring or missing the sarcasm completely. “It’s tradition. Recruits arrive at the training camp by bus because they have always arrived by bus.”

“That’s it?”

“The military is big on traditions,” he replied with a shrug, “this tradition has a purpose though. We will all arrive together, we’ll be thrown into the organized chaos of military training together.”

“So?”

“Well according to Psyop… psychological operations,” he clarified when he saw the bewildered look on Mickey’s face. “It helps forge the recruits into a group not just a bunch of people all doing the same thing at the same time. If we arrived one or two at a time, we wouldn’t be a group.”

“If you say so,” Mickey shrugged unconvinced.

“Look around,” the kid suggested, “it’s already starting to happen.”

Mickey followed his suggestion. Here and there on the bus small groups were forming. Usually two people sitting next to each other, but sometimes a small cluster of people from neighboring seats. People who were now cut off from everyone and everything they knew were meeting for the first time, assuming they would be in training together, and getting to know each other.

He listened as best he could. Some were trading stories of why they were there but most were keeping their reasons to themselves. ‘I figured there would be time to meet everyone else later’, Mickey thought to himself, ‘maybe even time for new friends’. He hadn’t expected this to be that time. Even though some of the people were talking, a fair number were just too overwhelmed, or too scared, to do anything but sit numbly and wait to reach their destination.

He turned to his neighbor, the kid who actually might know what he was talking about. “I’m Mickey Hynes,” he said offering his hand for the kid to shake.

“Frank Cho,” said the kid as he took his hand and shook.

Just like I was a normal person’, thought Mickey, ‘gotta keep the constant surprise at normal human contact to a minimum. I’m a super now… well as good as’. “What do you do Frank?”

“Nothing too impressive,” he said with some self-deprecation, “not for a combat unit at least,” he added. “I’m kind of like a library, I remember everything I see or read, it’s kind of like the super version of an eidetic memory. Speed reading goes along with it. I can understand all languages, and I can pretty much break most codes. Given the current available technology, not to mention the stuff some supers pump out I’m kind of obsolete. Most people can do a lot of what I can using their cell phone.”

“I don’t know,” replied Mickey, this time actually sounding a bit impressed. “It sounds really cool to me.”

“Nah, it’s all just so much information,” Frank said, “I don’t have the context to put any of it together and just because I know the words in a textbook doesn’t mean I understand it all, reading a math text doesn’t make me any better at doing math for example.”

“Yeah I suppose,” he agreed tentatively, “but I still wish I had the textbook at my fingertips back when I was in school.”

“What about you?” Frank asked diverting the subject, “What makes you super?”

Mickey froze for a second before answering, ‘I have to avoid standing out when people ask about my powers, I can’t lose this chance’, he thought as he started to answer Frank, hoping he didn’t take any notice. “I concentrate matter and energy into specific forms.”

“What does that mean? Wait,” he said obviously recalling something from the database in his head, “are you like the Conjurer?”

“The who?”

“The Conjurer, he was a hero, then a villain a bunch of years ago. He could make things out of nothing and also make things disappear apparently.”

“Nothing so grand, there’s only one thing I really make.”

“What’s that?”

“Bullets.”

“Hmm, so you never run out of bullets?”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. I also make lots of different types of bullets.”

“Different types?”

“Well that’s where the energy part comes in,” Mickey said with a grin, “I can make them explode, deliver an electrical shock, burst into light, all sorts of neat tricks.”

“Wow!” Frank replied with the enthusiasm of a teenager. “Now that is a neat power. With a power like that I’m surprised you didn’t go HCP when you were my age.”

This time no matter how hard he tried to control it, Mickey’s face showed fear, anger and sadness all rolled into one. “I…” he started to speak but couldn’t, it felt like something was pulling the air from his chest, he couldn’t breathe.

“I’m sorry man,” Frank said rapidly, seeing how upset Mickey was getting. “We all have our reasons for being here and not in the HCP. I’d make a lousy hero myself.”

“I…” the tightness was still there, he was choking, he desperately tried to catch his breath. He reached down and caressed his gun. It was hidden at his side, unseen despite its bulk, another of the special properties it had. The action calmed him down. ‘I’m as good as a super now... I’m as good as a super now’, he kept repeating in his head, ‘Frank even thought I should have gone to the HCP’. He started to calm down. “That is, I…”

“I… that is I… I’m really sorry,” Frank stammered out. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said by way of apology. And then just like a teenager kept back on the same path. “Did you try HCP when you were my age?” he asked pointing out the fact that Mickey was not a kid, yet again.

Mickey looked around and changed the subject. “Interesting group of people here,” he said nodding toward a cluster of five recruits talking to each other, four were in their seats facing inward in a rough circle, the last was sitting cross-legged on the ceiling turning to face whoever was talking at the time.

Looking around he noted the diversity of the group. Men outnumbered women about five to one. Most of them were in their late teens or early twenties but here and there were older men and women, thirties, even forties. And then there were those who you couldn’t put an age to.

Frank pointed over at a pair of them and whispered “superfreaks” to Mickey.

Mickey looked over trying hard not to stare. One was huge and their skin was gnarled and horn-like, Mickey honestly wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman. The one next to it was a woman but they were so disfigured he wished they weren’t. ‘No woman should have to live like that’ he thought to himself before he corrected it. ‘Scratch that, no one should have to live like that. I’ve known too many with similar problems’.

“None of that,” Mickey shot back at Frank with heat in his voice. “They are now our compatriots, we may depend on them to save our skins and they may depend on us for the same reasons. I have no tolerance for prejudice against our own.”

“I…” Frank started hesitantly obviously never having had to deal with issues like this and not being used to being told off like that. This time it was his turn to change the subject. “What do you think is back there?” he pointed to the very end of the bus.

The entire area in the back of the bus was actually walled off. It was a riveted steel wall and there were what looked like pressure and temperature gauges on the outside of the sealed door. If there was an occupant, they were not visible to the others on the bus.

“I don’t know,” Mickey said, “someone very dangerous I would assume. It could be someone who hasn’t learned to control his powers yet. Or maybe a powered,” he added cautiously.

“Do you think those rumors are true?” he asked at a whisper. “That Force Ops takes powereds as well as supers?”

“They aren’t rumors Frank.” Mickey responded matter of factly. “Force Ops definitely has powereds, not a large number compared to the supers, but when the ability can be controlled or is particularly useful they let them join. Actually I think it’s covered under the extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are actually obligated to try and help them bring their powers under control to the point they can serve.”

“I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“Well maybe you should just think about it then,” Mickey added gruffly and turned to stare out the window ignoring Frank.

I’ve lived with this all my life’, he thought, ‘it’s only bothering me now because for the first time the person I’m facing doesn’t instantly know I’m powered’. He reached under his jacket and stroked the gun again, taking comfort from its presence. ‘Thanks Rube, to the survivors and the warriors’, it had become his mantra since that night and he would never forget it.

For the next half hour Mickey stared out the window, the view remained a lonely two lane road through rough country, there were no other vehicles anywhere in sight. Then without warning the buses took a sudden turn to the left and traveled down a rutted path that couldn’t even properly be called a road. Signs indicating “Danger,” and “No Admittance,” were seen dotted along the path.

After ten minutes of a bumpy jarring ride down this track through flat, dry, broken country, there was still nothing to be seen until suddenly the first bus disappeared from view, followed by the second. Mickey had his hand on the gun when he had a momentary visual flash and when his eyes cleared the area outside was now grassy and tree lined.

The road was smooth and they were approaching a large collection of buildings ranging from one to three stories in height. There was a low brick wall to the left of the bus on which there was a sign that read:

Camp Starlight

U.S. Force Ops Recruit Training Depot

Commanding General: Brig. Gen. A.W. Wright

Sergeant Major: Com. Sgt. Maj. D.C. Wellington

__________

Muscle was tired, sweaty, uncomfortable, and desperately wanted a drink.

He had a farewell party last night and saw a few of his lady friends so at least he wasn’t horny too. ‘Shouldn’t have partied so hard the night before’, he thought ruefully, ‘today is gonna be a bitch. If only regeneration took care of hangovers’ he wished yet again. He had made that same wish more times than he could count over the years. He didn’t have much in the way of regeneration, just enough so he almost never got knocked out, but it didn’t do anything for the headaches afterwards.

He was on the second of three buses trudging down the road to wherever it was they were going to be trained. ‘They were kind of cagey about the where when I asked. Why the hell is it such a big secret?’ he wondered for the fourth or fifth time. ‘It seems like they would want us to know where we were going, in case we missed the bus’.

He had looked around to scope out the competition while they were waiting to get onboard but there were an awful lot of them. It was easier on the bus, no one moving around, less people. If only his stomach didn’t feel like it was about to empty itself.

He had gotten on the bus quickly when they called them all to board, he wanted a seat in the back and he got it. He also managed to glare enough at everyone who tried to sit next to him that the seat remained empty and his feet were up. Even seated in a comfortable slouch, he was tall enough to see over the backs of the seats.

It looked to him like they put most of the strongmen on this bus. About halfway down the aisle, he saw a clump of five very large men sitting or kneeling on their seats, turned to face one much smaller man.

Must have something they want’, he thought, ‘guy like that could never hold the respect of bruisers like those’. He sized them up with his fighter’s eye, you could never really tell when powers were involved but six years on the circuit let him know what to look for. He looked them over carefully for subtle indications of confidence and skill, strength and indestructability. None of them measured up to him. ‘Except maybe that one’, he admitted to himself, ‘he might give me trouble’.

The object of his scrutiny was the largest of the five; he had an expression that conveyed that he wasn’t worried about anything. No one else he saw had quite such an unconcerned appearance, others hid it well, or weren’t scared, but no one was worry free.

Just then the large man laughed, braying out loud, and Muscle changed his mind about him. It wasn’t that he had no worries, it was that he was devoid of intelligence. Stupid enemies are easy enemies. He moved his gaze further down the bus putting him out of his mind.

It was a mixed bag in this bus, mostly men but a few women too. He spotted the most obvious strong man near the front, they had modified the seats there for extra-large passengers and this guy was certainly that. Easily eight feet tall and built like a truck. He sat there with a book in hand reading. Muscle figured him for tough but slow.

No one else really stood out to him so he lay back and took a nap.

He wasn’t sure how long he slept when he was woken up by sudden bouncing and jostling of the entire bus. “God damn it,” he exclaimed loudly, several others turning to look at him. “Doesn’t this thing have any shocks?” He swallowed down his nausea, took a few minutes to wake up, rubbed his eyes to clear his vision and looked out the window.

They weren’t on the highway anymore. They were going down a long rutted road with signs every so often warning them away.  Then, suddenly they weren’t. There was a momentary flash of light and they were on smooth road again, the bumping and jarring stopping as rapidly as it started.

The buses continued on down the road passing a sign telling them they were now entering Camp Starlight, ‘Stupid name’, Muscle thought. ‘A long gone hero, just because he was a pilot or something in World War Two doesn’t mean they should name this place after him’.

Entering the camp itself they passed a guardhouse with a raised barrier, two black uniformed men stood watch at that checkpoint. Muscle only got a quick glimpse but they looked like they were wearing some kind of body armor and carrying guns. ‘Why the hell do supers need guns and vests? Damn this really is a poor man’s HCP’, he bitched at the situation he was in yet again. ‘Maybe I should have tried to follow Sam into hero training’, he thought suddenly, then made a gagging noise causing others to look at him again. ‘Hell, I ain’t no hero, never going to be, never want to be’.

They continued to wind their way down the road, he watched as barracks and other buildings blurred past. One area they passed appeared to be the start of some sort of obstacle course, in another area floating rings bobbed up and down over ground that appeared to have been torn apart by explosions. The buildings seemed varied in purpose and thus in design. Some looked like bunkers while others appeared almost fragile.

The occupants of the bus had all stood up and were glued to the windows looking out at the facility that was to be their new home for the next several months.

Muscle stopped looking out as he caught a glimpse of something of much greater interest to him. Two women he couldn’t see before, they were short enough that their heads were below the level of the seats, were now standing and a sight for his sore eyes. The two of them had become the center of his attention.

The first was pretty enough, dark hair, fit, her face had chiseled features and was just a bit too sharp for Muscle, even though he liked her smile. But the second… when Muscle saw her, he actually decided he just yet might enjoy being in Force Ops. She had a perfect figure, if he were looking at a picture of her he would have been sure it was airbrushed.  Her wealth of hair was so black it actually looked blue, ‘of course’, he thought, ‘in this crowd it might actually be blue’. And her face was perfect, flawless dark skin, red lips, dark smoldering eyes.

Ok, maybe I am horny’, he thought as he shoved his way past the others down half the length of the bus to get to her. He got some nasty looks along the way but no one had the balls to try him.

“Hi,” he said, plastering a cheesy grin on his face.

The two women turned and glanced at him briefly, glancing up and down. The sharp faced one leaned over and whispered something into the ear of Muscle’s prey and both of them broke into giggles.

“Did I say something funny?” Muscle asked actually confused. He was handsome and well-built and his reputation and notoriety generally made picking up women easy for him.

“No,” beautiful said, “just predictable.” Even her voice was perfect, just a slight Spanish accent making her sound all the more sensual.

“Predictable? Me?”

“Wait,” she said suppressing a giggle, “next you were going to tell me my power has to be how beautiful I am. No?”

“I wouldn’t dream of using so cheesy a line on you,” he feigned offense though he had been about to use almost exactly that line.

“No,” she giggled again, “of course not.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a telepath or something.” He thought of icebergs, garbage scows, and the bathroom at one of the worst forums he ever fought at, everything as anti-sexual as he could. There was no way he wanted this woman to see what he had been imagining a few moments ago.

“No, not at all, I’m just the one who looks like this, surrounded by the men who act like you. I’ve gotten used to it. Harmless, but predictable.”

“Listen,” he said trying another tactic. “I’m just trying to get to know some people here. I’m not used to being another face in the crowd.”

“No I would guess not… Muscle.”

He did a double take, “wait a minute, you know who I am?” Her friend had collapsed back into her seat and was openly laughing.

“Of course I do, and you, it seems, don’t know who I am. Pity,” she said with mock sadness, “I do so love being recognized.” Her friend gasped for air next to her, she was laughing so hard at the exchange that she couldn’t breathe.

“Well then, let’s get together when we have some time off and I’ll make sure I can recognize every perfect inch of you.”

“Oh Muscle, I don’t think you’re man enough for me.”

“Baby, trust me I’m more than man enough.” He had enough flirting, it was time to go for it, and he took her by the shoulders and went in for a kiss to show her just how much of a man he was. Her friend stopped laughing and he heard a gasp from her just as he closed his eyes for the kiss.

Suddenly he had a sensation of intense pressure at his crotch, not in a good way. He felt himself lifting up into the air before his lips could make contact. He opened his eyes to see that the beautiful girl had a lock tight grip on his crotch and was holding him in the air by it with one hand.

“I told you I don’t think you’re man enough for me. Try that again and you won’t be man enough for anyone.” People all around the bus were staring at them. Some looked like they were about to get involved but the girl’s friend waved them all off.

Thank GOD I don’t feel pain’, the thought seemed to go through his mind a great many times. He changed the tension of his skin and made the area in question harder, much harder. “That’s not gonna do too much to me darling, if you really knew much about me you would know I’m not just a strong man, I control the tensile strength and recoil of my body. You have a grip on something harder than steel,” he said with a smile, “am I man enough for you now?”

She smiled up at him again and he started to feel the pressure on the area increase. He responded, increasing the tensile strength until he hit his limits and he still felt the pressure increasing. While it wasn’t painful, it was distinctly worrisome that some real damage might be done. He was just deciding how to best break loose when the bus pulled to a stop and the pressure abated somewhat.

Looking down from where he was held, he noticed they were now on the edge of what looked like a parade ground. Almost as soon as the bus came to a halt the door in front opened and a black uniformed man entered.

Standing next to the driver he started to yell at them. “Everyone off the bus now,” he ordered, “move it, move it, off, off, off.” Then, he started to slowly walk toward the back of the bus, prompting each and everyone in the bus to step off as fast as possible. For the most part everyone moved as they were told to do so. Most of the people in the bus were tired and a bit overwhelmed. Anyone giving them direction was to be listened to. One recruit took the order so literally, that when they found the path to the door still blocked with milling recruits, they dove through a now open window. He landed in a perfect tuck and roll, and stood up looking surprised at himself. The rest of the recruits weren’t quite that enthusiastic, but they began the slow push down the aisle.

The black-uniformed man, a corporal by his insignia, looked down the aisle and slightly raised an eyebrow as he saw the scene with Muscle and the woman. “Clear a path, now!” he said in a tone that brooked no question.

Seeing him coming her way, the woman almost casually tossed Muscle to the ground. “Some other time,” she said with a smile as she reached over to her seat to grab a knapsack. Turning back to him she added, “they say the army can make a man out of anyone,” she sniffed, “we’ll see,” and with a laugh she turned her back on him and started walking toward the front, smiling at the corporal as she approached.

Muscle was stunned, no one had ever swatted him aside so casually. He wasn’t hurt, aside from his pride, if anything he was even more intrigued. From his viewpoint from the floor he saw the corporal say a few words to her before she moved on passed him and he continued till he was standing above Muscle.

“Is there a problem here mister?”

“No problem at all”, he grinned, “just some rough foreplay.”

“None of that, this isn’t some sort of dating service, you are here to be a soldier. First lesson today is respect for your fellow trainees of both sexes. Am I clear?”

“Yeah yeah,” he said as he stood. He dwarfed the corporal who was, while fit, slight of build compared to him, and no more than five foot six. He looked down on him, the frown on the corporal’s face trying to drill a hole through his head. “Sir,” he added casually.

“First, yeah yeah is not an appropriate response to a question in Force Ops. Second you will address me as corporal, not sir. Is that clear?”

Muscle waved a hand over his shoulder at the corporal shrugging him off as he moved back to where he had been sitting. “Sure, whatever,” he said lazily.

“Are you just too stupid to take an order?”

“What order? Oh right, sure corporal.”

“Get off the bus,” he looked him up and down and tapped a device set on his wrist, “and give me five hundred pushups.”

“Yeah sure corporal, I’m getting my shit, give me a second.”

“I said now!” the corporal replied standing in the aisle next to Muscle’s seat where he was bent over gathering his belongings.

“When I have my shit I said!”

“Now! And make it one thousand pushups!”

Muscle was done, he was hung over, he was frustrated, and this pipsqueak was telling him what to do. Army or no army he wasn’t going to take this shit. He spun on his heel, pulled back to throw a bone shattering punch, let swing, and suddenly he was flying backwards through the air. He hit the wall of the bus and tore through it like tissue paper. Sharp edges of the glass and metal tore up his clothes though failed to draw any blood as he instinctively had strengthened his skin.

He flew twenty feet through the air, past the curb, over the paved sidewalk, and onto the actual parade ground. He narrowly missed hitting a woman with long dirty blond hair who was walking by, to land roughly on well-manicured green grass. Other recruits who were already standing on the parade ground dove out of the way to avoid his flying body. Now he lay among them, several still scrambling out of the way.

While Muscle was staggering to his feet the black-uniformed corporal flew out from the rent in the side of the bus as if shot out of a cannon and landed in front of him.

“Now that was a more appropriate speed to follow an order,” the soldier said. Twenty feet behind him another man in the standard black uniform walked over and touched the side of the bus. The hole began to seal up, the torn metal bending and twisting back into the proper shape. Fragments of glass and metal flew from the ground around them, Muscle even felt some pull away from his clothes, to fly back to their place of origin. After a few seconds, the side sealed up as if the damage was never there.

Muscle got to his feet and looked around, he was on the edge of a big open field, there were bleachers along the far edge and a platform set just forward of the bleachers. There was a podium on the platform. About a dozen people in uniform stood together on the platform, staring at him.

Other recruits surrounded the two of them like a crowd at a street fight. ‘No way I’m gonna look like the fool here’ he thought with anger welling up inside him, ‘first the girl, now this wimp, someone is gonna have to get pulped’. He stared down at the black uniformed soldier standing in front of him and planted his feet to resist… whatever it was he threw at him.

“These were nice clothes you just ruined, I think I’ll take the cost out in blood,” Muscle threatened. “You’re good with a sucker punch,” he growled, completely ignoring the fact that he had been about to deliver a sucker punch of his own. “Care to try it again with me looking? Cause this time you ain’t going to lay a hand on me.”

“I didn’t lay a hand on you last time,” he said calmly facing down the larger man. “Now, it’s time for you to drop and give me one thousand pushups.”

Muscle looked ready to fight right then and there. As he started to move forward there was a slight tremor in the ground that made him pause and look around. Everyone stood with hands out to keep balance. It felt like a mild earthquake, the kind Californians say they don’t even notice. Just as suddenly as it started, it ended.

Muscle was just turning back to face the corporal when a raised voice said “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!” The tone of that order left no room for disobedience. The recruits surrounding the imminent fight scrambled to locate their spots.

There, metal stakes with numbered flags from one to seventy-five on them were anchored into the ground in five rows of fifteen. They were set about five feet apart so the area covered was nearly half a football field in length. The new recruits slowly found their way to their numbers and faced the platform, no one seemed to know quite how to stand.

Muscle looked over at the people lining up and then back at the black uniformed soldier standing next to him. “Someday soon you and I are going to have to try that again. I guarantee a different outcome.” He then stalked off to stand next to number forty-two.

The corporal called after him as he walked off, “As soon as this is done you have an appointment with me to do a thousand pushups. After that, if you want, I’ll give you your sparing session.” It wasn’t lost on anyone that the corporal didn’t call it a fight.

__________

Victoria stepped up the stairs onto the first of the buses with her husband Peter right behind her. They had hung back, they thought they would get on the second or third bus but they were directed to the first by a harried young man with a clipboard.

Because of that the bus was nearly full when they entered it. She looked around, unconsciously rubbing her neck where the inhibition collar had sat for the last few weeks. ‘Great’, she thought as she saw her bus mates, ‘we get to be on the island of misfit supers’. She leaned back to her husband and whispered, “So many of them are broken in so many ways.”

She watched him look around as well, the sheen of his now bald head disturbing her even more than her surroundings did. She still wasn’t used to his hair being gone, there wasn’t even any fuzz growing back yet, ‘this is pretty much the style he’s going to have to wear now anyway’, she wasn’t happy about it, she had loved tangling her fingers in his hair.  ‘At least for the foreseeable future’, she silently amended, ‘and at least they healed the scars’.

The two of them walked down the aisle looking for two seats together. There weren’t many to choose from but they saw one empty seat about halfway down and another all the way toward the back. “Well we either sit in the middle or I guess we get to sit with the cool kids,” she said to her husband as they kept moving down the aisle toward the back of the bus.

Victoria let her power loose as they walked looking at each recruit in turn. She figured there were twenty or twenty-five others in here with them and that made her a bit uncomfortable. She sought out their weaknesses, ‘just in case’ she told herself. Most of the people on the bus were run of the mill supers, but there were several powereds here as well she noted and several stood out to her.

In the seat just behind the driver was a man in his late twenties, handsome but not outstanding. She noted the extreme fitness that few people, even supers, managed to achieve. The attention he clearly paid to his exercise regimen wasn’t echoed in his grooming. His hair was unkempt, it was obvious he was overdue for a haircut, he had several days growth of beard that hadn’t even been touched up, it was extending up onto his cheeks and down toward his neck and chest. His cheeks were a bit hollow like he had lost some weight suddenly.

The most noticeable thing about him though were his eyes, he had a dead look in his eyes, like all the joy was gone from him. She would need to keep her distance from him, he was dangerous to her.

Behind him sat a pair of identical twins, usually by this age even identicals showed some divergence but these two were a dead on match for each other. Peter tapped her on the shoulder and whispered “entangled,” to her. She nodded, agreeing with his thoughts and kept walking.

Three seats further back was her next surprise. She stopped for a second, turned back to her husband flicked her eyebrows toward a young man, no more than eighteen, sitting in the fourth seat back and staring out the window. “Manhattan,” she mouthed silently, “at least.”

He leaned in and kissed her quickly while whispering, “weaknesses?”

“Not much, you can handle him though,” she whispered back, “talk more later.”

She passed another man three more seats down and whispered back, “take his cane and he’s helpless.”

An empty seat was coming up but as they got closer they heard strange sounds coming from it. Whirrs and whizzes, bangs, and pops. As they walked passed they look into the seat to see what looked like a fully three dimensional cartoon character. He was two big eyes in a mass of hair with a big red bow tie and a black top hat. No other features were visible except for two large feet stretched out on the seat which were covered in electric blue sneakers. The noises were coming from small exploding objects that leapt into existence around him and then disappeared.

“What the hell?” exclaimed Peter as he saw him. The big eyes shifted and focused on him, actually extruding out of the head and becoming larger. Peter couldn’t help it, he broke down laughing.

The… recruit… he was on the bus so he had to be a recruit, stood up to his full height, about seven and a half feet tall and looked down at Peter, his hair puffing out to make him look larger. Then a maw opened in the middle of the mass of hair that was his body and smiled in a big toothy grin. “Just remember, no one ever beat Bugs Bunny,” he said. Then his body shifted into a feminine anthropomorphic zebra, planted a big kiss on Peter’s bald head while six miniature cupids complete with tiny bows and arrows circled around their heads.

Peter was so stunned he didn’t move until Victoria dragged him on down the aisle to the sound of the cartoon character laughing. Peter looked back and saw he now looked human, with blond wavy hair and a tan, he gave off the impression of being a surfer. A small cartoon angel and devil were perched on his shoulders giving each other high fives.

Peter just shook his head as Victoria dragged him on. “What was…?”

“Talk later,” she said under her breath. “I told you broken… now shut up and watch.”

Two more seats down was a recruit that literally shifted forms from one person to another three times in the space of the ten seconds it took for them to reach his seat. Victoria paused and did a quick double take as he suddenly shifted into a female form, ‘maybe her seat?’ she corrected. The soft spots for them kept shifting with each shift, ‘I’ll have to watch them for a while, that will give me what I need’.

Finally they came to an open seat and she moved in and started to sit when a voice exclaimed “Hey!” from empty air at the top of his lungs. Parts of a person flickered in and out of sight in the seat. “Sorry, occupied,” the voice said indignantly.

Great another freaking invisible man’ she wasn’t happy with the prospect. She focused on the almost empty air and frowned. ‘This one can’t even control it’, she looked closer for a second, ‘not even capable of controlling it’, she corrected. ‘Great, he’s emotionally stunted and turns invisible when he feels out of control. We’re never going to see him he’s all one big soft spot’.

“What the hell were they thinking taking him into this crew?” her husband asked in a whisper as they moved on to the last empty seat in the bus all the way in the back right before the bench seat that went across the entire end of the bus.

As they reached the empty seat they got a good view of the three women sitting in the very back. It was a bench seat that went across most of the bus with the bathroom taking up the remaining area. In this odd collection of supers and powereds, there were several odd things about this final group. First the woman in the middle was wearing a black Force Ops uniform already, a corporal by her insignia. Second was that the other two women on either side of her looked even more frightened than anyone else she had seen either before getting on the bus or since. The one on the left was a dirty blond who, despite sitting back with her eyes closed, practically radiated fear. The third, and last, odd thing she noticed is that the corporal was holding the others hands.

Before Victoria could focus her power on them however the bathroom door opened and she had to step into the empty seat to let the woman coming out of the bathroom get by. She automatically shifted her gaze, and the focus of her power to the new woman. By this time, her mind had enough shocks to make most people comatose, her calm broke and she exclaimed out loud, “Really, the cartoon character wasn’t enough?”

The people in the seats around her turned to look at her and the woman trying to get by. The new comer looked like she was in her mid-twenties, her face was pretty but not outstanding, very pale skinned with freckles and deep red hair. She had, Victoria had to admit, a body to kill for. “What? You don’t like gingers Vicky?” she asked as she moved passed. No one noticed the pointed exchange of glares the two of them gave each other.

“What’s your name Red?”

“Vanessa,” she said in a low contralto, “Vanessa Oxbow.”

“I’ll remember it.”

“I’m sure you will. Give my regards to Harry when you see him next.”

“I’ll be sure to.”

The two of them parted and Vanessa walked back down to the front of the bus.

Victoria took her seat and Peter sat down next to her just as the bus pulled out of the garage onto the highway.

“What was that?” Peter asked.

“Trouble… more trouble… I can’t believe the sheer amount of…” she threw up her hands and groaned, “Arrrgh!” again causing the people around them to look at her.

“Advanced mind?” he asked as he thrust his chin at the retreating Vanessa.

Victoria looked down the aisle at the retreating woman, ‘I can’t believe she has such a perfect ass, her ass is nicer than mine!’ she thought ruefully. “No, not an advanced mind,” she answered. “We have a lot to talk about later.” She paused and dropped her voice to a whisper, “do you know where we are?”

“Yeah,” he whispered back conspiratorially. “Nevada, I could tell as soon as we left the garage and its interdiction field.”

“So you can fold again?”

“Yeah,” he said shaking his head no, “but it wouldn’t do any good. Unless we had everything we needed set to go it won’t help. We couldn’t get away and I wouldn’t survive it.”

“Time, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Maybe… the good news is the enhancements definitely work, I can sense the difference.”

“Great… all things considered I’d rather have you weaker but without the other additions.”

“Well I would too.”

Victoria closed her eyes for a moment wondering yet again how they got here. They were the King and Queen of the super thieves. They weren’t stupid, they never left clues to trace them back to their real identities. Hell they were buried so deep in false identities, dummy corporations, and dead end trails that sometimes she had trouble remembering who they really were.

She replayed their capture in her head again and again looking for anything they could have done to prevent it. Short of not being there or having additional automatic defenses, which came with their own set of issues, she didn’t see anything.

When that Major Alexander woman hauled them into that underground vault she was sure it was going to be both better and worse than it actually was. Inhibitor collars in place not letting them focus their thoughts enough to really activate their powers, surrounded by powerful hostile supers, and being told they were drafted into Force Ops still didn’t prepare her for the next meeting.

God damn it’, she replayed the scene in her mind again. ‘He had introduced them, eight years ago, and they hadn’t seen him again since their wedding. The whole thing was such a freak chance to begin with but right after meeting her he told her that she just had to meet Peter and almost literally dragged her into the library to meet him. He was right about that, he is the love of my life. And my only real weakness’.

The shock they had when they walked in the room to see him standing there pouring tea for them. ‘How had he been at that party again?’ she asked herself. ‘He was a friend of Peter’s uncle and picked up her mother on the side of the road when she had a flat tire. She was coming to the party and he was dropping something off with Peter’s uncle and was invited in. Wasn’t that it? What were the chances?

“Hello Victoria, Peter. It’s been quite some time. I hope you are well?”

“You know damn well we aren’t well. Were those your goons? What do you have to do with Force Ops?” She shot questions at him rapid fire, no pauses between them to give him any chance to answer.

He waited till she was done and handed her a cup of tea. She scented the air and had trouble believing it.

“Yes it’s Da Hong Pao, I know your exotic tastes. It’s actually from your cabin so don’t get overly excited. I’d actually be curious as to how you managed to get it?” he looked at her inquiringly.

She took the tea and inhaled the floral steam rising from it. She did not answer his question. Instead she asked one of her own, “So you aren’t just a kidnapper, you’re also a thief? Well that puts us on the same level doesn’t it?”

Now it was her turn to be ignored. He handed her husband a different cup. “English breakfast with cream for you Peter. Your tastes are quite different than Victoria’s. That’s probably why you make such a good couple. Diversity and all that.”

He took the cup as well. He also handed him a bottle of Tylenol. “For the headache I’m sure you have after the being knocked senseless.” He turned to Victoria, “I’m sure you won’t need it. I doubt the collar inhibits you that much.” He looked at his watch, “in fact, how much longer would you say it will even work Victoria? Seven maybe eight minutes?”

She smiled at him over the tea cup and said, “Maybe,” as her only reply.

“Well then I have that long to speak to you comfortably and inform you of your circumstances.”

“And then what?”

“Then you make a decision,” he looked at her and she could see intense fatigue behind those eyes. If only she could focus on him. “It’s a very important decision,” he continued.

She was pulled from her reverie when Peter shook her shoulder gently. The bus was making a sharp left off the road. ‘How long was I out?’ she asked herself and looked out their window at the bleak landscape, then looked across the aisle out the opposite window. She didn’t note much difference between the view out the two sides of the bus but she did notice the young man sitting in the seat next to theirs.

She had been so distracted by Vanessa that she didn’t even glance at him before. ‘What’s happening to me?’ she asked herself, ‘I’m never like this, that’s why we are so successful’, she berated herself. ‘I have to get a grip, this whole thing may be the biggest shock of our lives but the devil is in the details and this is one I shouldn’t have missed’.

She tapped her husband again and whispered, “the boy next to us, he’s the survivor.”

Peter glanced over to the other seat and then nodded agreement when he turned back to her. “He’s supposed to be under psychiatric care according to the news. What’s he doing here?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but like I said, so many of them are broken. He’s no different. He’s easy to tip over, he’s already tipped over in many ways.”

Suddenly she put her arms around Peter and pulled him into a tight hug. She wasn’t sure why she did it, she certainly wasn’t planning to. It wasn’t that they weren’t affectionate toward each other. She laughed to herself, ‘very affectionate’. It was that she always had better control than this. She needed him to lean on just now.

“You’re my strength to you know?” she whispered in his ear.

“And you’re mine,” he whispered back.

They sat there like that for an unclear amount of time, eyes closed, until the feel of the ride changed. They were back on paved road.

“We just passed through a distortion field,” Peter whispered to her. “We must be close. We’re still in Nevada, just hidden well.”

They looked out the window again just as they were passing a guardhouse. Just a few minutes after that, they were pulling up to a parade ground followed immediately by being ordered to get off the bus.

As they stepped off there was a loud disturbance from the second bus. One of the recruits came flying through the wall of the bus to land on the grass twenty feet away followed quickly by a black uniformed corporal, apparently the one who threw him. She and Peter joined the crowd and waited for the fight to start. “If you have to face the corporal he’s purely linear,” she whispered to Peter, “the other guy is easy for you to deal with.”

The fight never started, it was interrupted first by a tremor, then by a raised voice which ordered “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!” Everyone, including the aggressive recruit head off to their spots. Though he clearly needed to try, unsuccessfully, to get in the last word. ‘He isn’t going to fit in well here’, she thought as she walked with Peter to number fifty-four. ‘Then again neither are we’.

“Are you ready for this?” Peter asked her, looking into her eyes, searching for a glimmer of her true feelings.

“I can deal with it,” she replied flatly, “not much choice, is there?”

“The price might be worth it.”

“Never say that again. Never think it. It is not worth it now. It won’t be worth it in ten years. And it still wouldn’t be worth it even if Far From Noble leveled this place and us with it tomorrow.” This time she looked deep into his eyes. “I will never sacrifice you,” she said then kissed him deeply before walking off.

She didn’t have a number. Her designation was PG.

She walked to the front of the group, half way between the recruits and the reviewing stand where a single flag was set in the ground apart from all the others. That flag also said PG. She took her place next to it and stood hands clasped behind her back, feet shoulder width apart, her back was straight, shoulders back and chest out. ‘Well Force Ops, here I am, let’s see what you’ve got’.

__________

Heather looked out the office window into the garage where three buses sat, their engines silent until they were ready to go. Nearly one hundred people must have been milling around waiting for someone to tell them it was time to get on their bus.

“I can’t do it!” she exclaimed suddenly, the small amount of furniture in the room started shaking and trembling in place. A cup suddenly fell off the table bouncing off the ground and spilling a small amount of herbal tea that was left in it.

“Yes you can,” said the old man waiting with her.

“Jesse, I know you want to help me, but the army? Force Ops? Hell being in a bus closed in with so many people? Please don’t make me do this,” she pled.

“Heather, you just need to stay calm, remember I’m working on a solution for you. We have some temporary solutions but a permanent one will come. But Force Ops pays the bills, and if you aren’t in Force Ops… they don’t get paid.”

The furniture started sliding across the floor pushing away from where she stood.

It’s not affecting me directly, I wonder why not?’ Jesse pondered. ‘There’s a clue in there somewhere’. He walked up to her and took her hand. “You need to stay calm. It will be OK.”

“I can sense them all out there you know, sense their nervousness, their uncertainty, their fear. It’s all repeating on me. It’s not like I understand what’s causing it, I just feel it,” she grabbed the sides of her head, “right here.” She fell to her knees crying, a chair flew into the wall and shattered, the window vibrated making a thrumming sound alongside her sobs. “How am I going to get into a rolling box with them and travel on the… roads. Can’t you just teleport me there? You teleported me here, why can’t you teleport me there?”

Jesse knelt down next to her, not letting go of her hand. “Heather… it’s just not allowed. But it’s OK, it will be safe.” He tapped his glasses and spoke aloud, “Please send Krista in.”

There were two doors to the room, one was next to the window and obviously led out to the garage area where everyone was milling around. The second door was on the opposite wall and must have led deeper into the complex. Heather sensed another person coming from behind that door. Panic came over Heather’s face and her hair began to writhe and twist forming an aura around her head. The doorknob suddenly started rattling and the door flew open pushing outward from Heather despite it being meant to open inward.

A woman in a black uniform entered the room. Her hair was in a single tight braid. “Thanks for getting the door, I’m Corporal Lambert” she said with a smile, though Heather could sense the tension from her.

“Stay away, I don’t want to hurt you.” She turned and looked at Jesse, “I told you this wasn’t a good idea. I should go back to Dignity.”

“They can’t help you Heather,” he said calmly, and surprisingly he actually felt calm to Heather, despite the difficult situation. “That’s why you came with me, remember?”

“I… I know but… I can’t… cars, buses… I don’t want it to happen again.”

“Heather, you know that wasn’t your fault. It was a drunk driver getting behind the wheel of an eighteen wheeler. They caused the accident not you. Your power flaring this way is what saved you.”

“I wish it hadn’t.” She wailed and the table slammed into the wall next to Krista who had started inching forward. “No!” Heather screamed, “Don’t come any closer!” and she stopped in her tracks.

“Heather,” Jesse said distracting her from the corporal, “focus on me. You trust me don’t you?”

“I do Jesse,” she answered realizing it was true. She couldn’t sense much from people but she knew Jesse was trustworthy despite what he did for a living.

“Then trust this. Focus and let her in.”

“It doesn’t work that way Jesse. I can’t control it.”

“No, you can’t control it, you can’t just let a threat through. But, you can see her as safe. If you see her as safe your power will ignore her. You can see for yourself. You trust me and it’s not doing anything to me.”

It was true. He knelt there next to her actually holding her hand. It was a rare thing for her now, human contact. “I… I don’t know how to do that.” Her eyes flicked toward Krista again, she was sliding backward toward the door while trying to push against the force that was moving her.

“Listen to me Heather,” Jesse said turning her head gently and looking into her eyes. “It’s OK, we are going to help you, no one here blames you for anything. Just listen to me, focus on me.”

“Jesse, I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize, just listen to me. It will be alright.” They sat there with Jesse softly speaking to her, holding her hand, rocking back and forth for the next few minutes. Slowly her tears began to lessen, her breathing became more regular, she started to calm down, and Krista took her other hand.

She looked up shocked, frightened even, but nothing happened. Nothing shook, nothing moved, and Krista wasn’t flung away into the wall.

“It will be OK now,” Krista said comfortingly.

“How? What? I…” Heather was confused. She tried to pull away but found she couldn’t let go of Krista’s hand. “I’m… I’m stuck to you.”

“It’s all right dear. It’s just part of my power. I’m going to keep you from doing anything while on route to training.”

“Oh…” she started crying again, “thank you, thank you so much. I must seem like such a baby. I don’t know why you would even want someone like me in Force Ops.”

“Heather, can I call you Heather?” a nod came in reply. “Heather, I make lots of trips just like this one. I’ve seen more supers and powereds who went through emotional upheavals and lack of control than you can imagine. I still talk to several of them. Don’t worry, they always get help. And you are far from the most emotional one I’ve seen.”

“Your name is Krista?”

“Yes. But I’m on duty and you are a recruit, so you should call me Corporal Lambert. Or if you’d like you can use my call sign, it’s Custody.”

“Custody? Does that mean I’m under arrest?”

“No,” she laughed, “don’t take the name so literally. I can shut down powers as long as I’m touching someone. And if I touch someone, I can hold on until I decide to let go. Sometimes I have to arrest a super but that’s a rare thing. I’m permanently attached to the training brigade. We have other supers who can shut down powers at more of a distance, they end up in combat units. Me I help newbies get under control.”

“So you will be there if I lose control?”

“I will sweetie,” she answered in a friendly manner.

“So,” she said drying her tears, felling a bit less worried for the first time. “Do we go now?”

“Not quite yet, Heather,” Jesse answered, “there are a couple of other things.”

“Like?”

“First, this is for you.” Jesse handed her a small disc.

“It’s your failsafe. It matches the wrist tracker and communicator you will be issued at training, you wear it on the opposite wrist, so you will have two discs like this.”

“What does it do?”

“It will help control your powers if they get out of control and Krista… Custody, isn’t around.”

“You can call me Krista, Colonel, it’s well within protocol.”

“First I would need to be OK with you calling me Colonel, Krista, anyway it’s Lieutenant Colonel. Back to the disc though, it contains two different drugs. I hate to use drugs to try and control situations with powereds but until we have a better handle on things that’s what we will need to do.”

“Drugs?” Heather asked numbly while also trying to wrap her mind around the fact that this nice old man, this brilliant scientist, was also a Lieutenant Colonel in Force Ops.

“Yes, the first one will dampen your emotions. It will numb you. Think of it as the ultimate anti-anxiety med. If you are feeling yourself lose control in a significant way, tap it with your finger and hold it for two seconds. It’s coded to you only, no one else can grab it and activate it.”

“Why didn’t you use it before? When I almost destroyed this place?”

“I didn’t think it was that bad a situation.”

“Not that bad?” she asked looking around in amazement at the wrecked furniture, the cracks running up the walls and in the concrete floor.

“No,” he said simply making her wonder what he did consider bad. “The drug can be habit forming if used too often and I don’t want that to happen. It’s for emergencies only not just because you are a bit worried. And yes I will know how often you are using it and deal with that if needed.”

“If you tap it twice rapidly,” he demonstrated, “the second drug releases. That one will knock you out completely in about five seconds.”

“But Jesse, knocking me out won’t help. Some of the worst problems happen in my sleep.”

“We’ve run the EEGs when they happen. You are always dreaming when they occur, nightmares that intrude on the waking world. You don’t dream when this drug knocks you out. It lasts for about ten minutes. Enough time to get Krista there or find another way to deal with an issue.”

“OK,” she said letting Jesse attach the disc to her wrist, “you said there were a couple of other things, what else?”

“There’s one more trainee that needs Krista’s help to travel.”

“Another dangerous powered?”

“No, she’s not dangerous as much as disruptive.”

“What do you mean?”

Jesse tapped his glasses again, “Send in Donna.”

About a minute later Heather sensed someone coming and then a woman walked through the door. Heather did a double take as she looked at her. She was in her mid-forties, long brown hair, an open friendly face and a few freckles across her nose. “Mom? What are you doing here?”

“No Heather, she’s not your mother,” Jesse said softly, “Donna’s as nervous about you as you are about her, that’s her desire for you to trust her and not see her as a threat.”

“She’s what?” as Heather looked closer, she realized that it clearly wasn’t her mother but she did sort of resemble her mother. She would have let her walk right up to her in need of a hug from her mommy without thinking twice and apparently so would her powers.

“Don’t blame her,” Jesse added, “she wasn’t trying to fool you. Donna is no more in control of her powers than you are. She instinctively projects what people want to see or she thinks people want to see. It gets a bit murky when trying to sort it out but that’s the basics.”

“Oh,” said Heather.

“I’m sure you can see why it might not be a good idea to drop that into a testosterone laden bus of Force Ops recruits?”

“Yeah, I definitely can see that.”

“Donna, if you would?” Jesse asked.

Donna walked up to the group of them, carefully picking her way through the debris showing an unexpected grace of movement. She faced Heather and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” Then she reached out and took Custody’s hand.

The changes were mostly subtle. The resemblance to her mother was gone. She had been mistaken, there weren’t any freckles, her skin was flawless. And her hair was blond and short, not long and brown. She was also much younger than she had thought she was, early twenties at most. Lastly the open friendly nature changed to project almost a cynicism distinctly noticeable, especially for someone her own age.

“Wait, I know you,” Heather said with sudden realization, “you were in Starbright, that really bad biopic about Captain Starlight. You played Diamond Glance.”

“Yeah,” Donna replied, looking a bit embarrassed over it.

“You… you were good.”

“I stank,” Donna corrected her. “It’s OK, I know how bad I was in there. It has to do with my… Oh never mind, I stank. Please don’t be nice about it, you don’t have to.”

“OK,” interrupted Jesse, “now it’s time to go. You guys load up first,” he gestured toward the door leading into the garage.

The three women walked hand in hand to through the door and onto the nearest bus which was empty other than the driver. They walked straight back to the very last row where there was a bench seat set next to the bathroom that went across the rest of the width of the bus.

“Does anyone need to use the bathroom before the others get on the bus?” asked Custody. “If we wait, I’d either have to let go or the three of us need to go in together neither of which is a good answer.”

“I kinda have to go,” answered Heather, “but I don’t think we can fit,” she said looking at the booth like restroom.

“We can’t, you go, I’ll stand in the door and maintain contact. You’ll have to handle things one handed.”

“Um that’s OK, I can hold it.”

“If modesty is the problem just forget that now. Once you’re in the barracks, all expectations of modesty are gone.”

“But…”

“Just go, I’m not looking forward to you having an accident halfway down the highway.”

Heather entered the tiny cubicle and did what she needed to do. Donna took the opportunity to do so as well. Custody having known what to expect didn’t need to.

When she was done, Donna shrugged and said, “I used to be a runway model, you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve done in front of people while I had no clothes on.”

After their business was done, they all sat on the bench seat, hand in hand in hand. Custody signaled the driver and the bus started filling with people. Heather closed her eyes and simply enjoyed not sensing everyone moving around her. She wasn’t sure how she would take seeing everyone moving around and not sensing them so she decided she would just take the time for some solitude.

Before they left her solitude was interrupted by a loud exclamation of “Really, the cartoon character wasn’t enough?” She opened her eyes and a redhead had just come out of the bathroom and a tall woman with blue-black hair was facing her. The dark haired woman apparently was the one who made the comment.

She glanced at Custody and Donna. Donna glanced back at her looking just as confused. Custody looked straight ahead at the two other women until their odd conversation ended and they parted ways, the redhead moving toward the front of the bus and the other woman sitting down in the seat in front of them.

The rest of the trip was pretty dull for Heather, something she was immensely happy about. ‘It won’t stay that way once I get off this bus and let go of Krista’s… Custody’s hand’ she lamented. ‘But for now, dull is good’.

When the bus came to a stop Custody shook Heather to let her know. She hadn’t been asleep but it was easy for anyone else to think she was. She was just enjoying the peace of being unaware for a short time.

Just after stopping another soldier in the black Force Ops uniform got on the bus and ordered everyone to swiftly get off the bus. People began to move, not swift enough for the soldier who began to use fairly colorful language to describe the appearance, unsavory habits, and overall failures of not only the recruits who couldn’t move fast enough for him, but their parents, grandparents, and anyone “with the piss poor luck to have had conjugal relations with them”.

Heather and Donna both started to rise but Custody held them tight and motioned left and right with her head for them to sit back down.

Once the bus was empty of everyone but the driver and the three of them she let go of their hands. She had been holding them for so long it came as something of a surprise to suddenly have the use of both arms again. A brief tremor ran through the bus and it began to rock just slightly right after Heather was no longer holding on to Custody. She realized her powers, and Donna’s were no longer suppressed. She glanced at Donna and was surprised to find she looked a bit like the pictures she’d seen of Diamond Glance.

“Heather,” Custody broke the silence she held since the others had first boarded the bus, “you should know for the last hour or so I haven’t been suppressing you at all.”

“But… but… you were holding my hand the whole time.”

“I’m not powered,” she said curtly. “I can control who I bond and who I suppress. I kept you bonded but stopped suppressing your powers right after the bus was about half full.”

“That’s impossible. I would have sensed people.”

“No,” she disagreed, “that’s what powers linked to belief and emotion gets you. You knew I was suppressing your power so you believed there was no danger. This kept you calm and unworried, even when an argument broke out in front of you, even surrounded by over twenty five other supers. Remember this, stay calm and stay controlled. Your emotions control your power even if you don’t. Control your emotions and your power is yours to command.”

“I…” she swallowed hard and tried to calm herself. The tremor stopped but she still looked nervous. Her finger began to move toward the disc on her wrist but she held it back. ‘Too soon’, she thought, ‘I have to use it sparingly or they will take it away, maybe kick me out with no hope for a miracle’.

“Better get going. You wouldn’t want to be late for first muster.” With that, she directed them out of the bus.

Heather stepped off the bus. She was breathing deeply and evenly trying to embrace her calm. That held right to the instant another recruit came flying through the wall of the second bus no more than five feet from where she was walking and landed on his back in the grass. This was followed immediately by yet another soldier in Force Ops black who landed on his feet within arm’s reach of the fallen recruit.

Her deep breaths became ragged hyperventilation, she saw a crowd gather quickly around the two men, someone was yelling something, and then she lost it. She felt the shaking all around her, she watched the busses sway back and forth. She felt it building within her and radiating out.

Then Donna was there, looking like a cross between her mother and Custody. She tried to grab Heather’s hand but was pushed back. No one could approach when this happened, if they did, they got hurt. It was too late even if Custody came back right now she couldn’t have reached her to use her powers. There was going to be a disaster.

“Heather!” Donna screamed, “Use the failsafe! Jesse told me he was going to give you a failsafe! Use it Heather!”

She remembered now, the disc on the back of her wrist. She rolled up her sleeve, tapped the disc and held it for two seconds. Suddenly it was as if she were standing somewhere else, she was separated from all her worries and concerns. She could breathe again. She took a deep calming breath and the tremor stopped. She looked around, everyone was so focused on the fight that no one had noticed them at all.

Seconds later a raised voice ordered “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!”

She looked around, there were a bunch of flags spaced out on the grass ahead. She mouthed a thank you to Donna before the two of them split up to find their spots. She was number twenty-two, almost in the middle of the second row. Donna, she noticed, was in the first row two spaces to her right. There was a man on either side of her, ordinary looking fellows, though the one to her right was holding a flute.

She glanced around calmly for once. Almost everyone was lined up. She saw a number of individuals who stood out for one reason or another but there were two very obvious inconsistencies. The first was an empty space right in the middle of the back row. The second was a single flag set ahead of the other five rows halfway between the first row and the reviewing stand. There was no number on that flag, instead the letters PG stood out on it. The tall woman from the bus, the one with the blue-black hair who almost got in an argument with the redhead, walked up to that flag and then stood there in what Heather took as a good imitation of parade rest.

The other missing person was nowhere to be seen. As Heather watched, two soldiers came up to that space and placed down what looked to be a steel plate over the grass next to number sixty-eight. Briefly she wondered if this were a violation of “give attention to the reviewing stand”, but everyone was staring at this and no one from the reviewing stand tried to stop it.

A third soldier brought what looked like a rolled up carpet and once the plate was down, the three of them began to unroll it just like a carpet until it came to the back of the third bus. It quite obviously wasn’t a carpet but some sort of white material, there was nothing about it to indicate its purpose. Once it was completely unrolled two of the three soldiers walked away and stood at the sides of the assembled recruits. The last soldier opened the back door of the third bus.

A shimmer ran through the air as the door was opened, like those seen in above the asphalt of a highway in the summer. She was far enough away that she didn’t feel anything but she sensed discomfort from the last row of recruits. The view of the bus wavered slightly when seen through that air and from within another recruit came forth.

He was a large man wearing a white tee shirt and jeans. Around his neck and coming down onto his chest was a dark metal collar, almost a harness. Here and there flames flickered across his body glowing briefly and then going out. He was dark skinned with black hair, and a nose that looked like it had been broken and not set right.

He looked around nervously before hopping down and walking along the white pathway that had been placed for him. Each step he took left a dark footprint behind him which stayed for a few seconds before fading away and returning to the white of the material. Heather realized the  purpose of the pathway now, and assumed it was obvious to everyone there.

As number sixty-eight slid into place in the last row, a sharp whistling sound came from the reviewing stand. “Attention!” came a shout right after the whistle stopped.

Heather didn’t really know what to do though several dotting the ranks here and there appeared to stand up straight with their arms at their sides and head facing forward. So that’s what she did. She brought her arms to her side, stood up straight, and paid attention to the people on the reviewing stand.

Everyone on the stand was wearing black Force Ops uniforms with different insignias, medals, ribbons, and braid. One of them, an African American, stepped up to the edge of the platform he was a man in his absolute prime. His upper arm had three chevrons on three rockers and in the center of them was a five pointed star with wings. There was a small gold disc on his collar but the image on it was too small to be seen. He spoke with a loud and forceful voice that only gave a mild impression that he gargled with gravel.

“Attention for Orders!” he said somehow loud enough to be heard by everyone present without actually shouting.

A large man in a black uniform with a single silver star on a ribbon at each shoulder stepped away from the group and up to the podium. There were numerous ribbons and medals on his chest and he radiated calm authority. His hair was black shot through with gray. His eyes were black as well, not dark brown but actually reflective black, almost obsidian in color. This alone would have marked him as a probable super even if they weren’t standing smack dab in the center of Force Ops training command. To Heather he looked solid and conveyed a modicum of age and maturity.

In his hands he held a gold embossed leather folio. He tapped the microphone to make sure it was live, the amplified tap-tap and static radiated out from well hidden speakers. He opened the folio and began to read.

“To Colonel A.W. Wright, Fourth Armored Regiment, US Army Force Ops. By order of the Commander and Chief and the agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Brigadier General with all rights, responsibilities, and privileges conveyed thereby. Furthermore you are requested and required to relinquish your command to Major Maxwell Reese and are hereby transferred to command of the newly formed Bravo Tango Training Brigade, Camp Starlight, effective immediately. Signed General Joshua Glenn, Commander US Army Force Ops.”

He closed the folio and looked out at the assembled recruits.

“Gentlemen and ladies, I am General A.W. Wright and I am the commanding officer of this training brigade, that includes the entirety of those currently enlisted in Force Ops and awaiting training which is many thousands but also includes this smaller group.”

He paused for a moment and watched the recruits before continuing. “Don’t bother to salute, you don’t know how to yet.” Heather heard a small bit of laughter from various places among the recruits. No one seemed to be sure if he was making a joke.

He ignored it and continued. “I felt it was important for you to see me today, your first day as soldiers in Force Ops. To know I am present and not simply some name on an org chart who has never even stepped foot on base. I will be watching each and every one of you carefully and I will be reviewing the reports of those directly responsible for your training. I expect each and every one of you to do your absolute best. I do not,” he stressed, “expect to ever be called for a disciplinary issue, so I am glad that there have been none so far.” With that many of the trainees turned to look at the large recruit who had flown through the wall of the bus. Heather was one of those who turned and looked back at him, he was in the third row to her right. He had a sullen look on his face.

The general stepped back to the group, nodding to the African American soldier to continue.

“I am Command Sergeant Major D.C. Wellington,” he introduced himself. “I am in charge of your overall training. While you are in basic training you will address me as Drill Sergeant, not sir, not sergeant, not D.C., and not sarge.”

“If you slip and use any such form of address you will immediately drop and give me fifty pushups and that number goes up by fifty for each week we are here. For those of you who are physically enhanced don’t feel left out, you’ll wish your talents lie elsewhere should we find the need to inflict such punitive measures upon you.”

“This is the United States Military not the HCP, any of you who think this is a way to play super hero for the army will learn differently right now. You are soldiers not super heroes. We are Force Ops and you will be proud to be Force Ops by the time I am done with you.”

“Now you will have one thing in common with super heroes and that is a name befitting of one.

“Ever since Tom Cruise took to the skies with Terri Nunn singing in the background, people thought they understood great flyers and everyone wanted a call sign. Whether it’s ‘Maverick’ or ‘Titan’ everyone wants to be someone. So congratulations, it’s too much work to try and stop you from giving each other nick names. As one of the last things you get to choose for yourself, you get to pick your call sign.”

There was a titter through the group, as people started saying their names out loud and whispering to their neighbors.

“One more thing, I have veto over any name chosen and, if I have to use my veto, you will realize that all choices have consequences.  Am I clear?

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” Heather shouted and heard the same reply echoing from nearly every voice there.

The Drill Sergeant waited for the shout of agreement to die down and continued. “On the top of the flag with your number on it you will each find a metallic disc. That is your tracker and com. Make no mistake, we will track you one hundred percent of the time you are here. You take a dump in the woods and we will track you. Two of you decide to have a little midnight rendezvous and we will track you. As of this minute, you have no privacy.”

“Take that disc and apply it to the back of your left wrist. Once there, it will not come off unless we remove it or your arm comes off with it.”

He paused and looked out at the group.

Heather picked up the disc. It did look just like the one on her right wrist. She took it and applied it to her left wrist and just like her other disc it stuck there. She looked around and saw everyone else seemed to be doing it as well.

“Now,” continued the Drill Sergeant, “when I tell you to proceed, tap the back of the disc twice and give it your name and the call sign you wish to be known by.” He waited for a good fifteen seconds and said “Proceed.”

Heather thought about it for only a few seconds before she tapped the disc twice, being careful to make sure to tap the one on her left wrist, not her right. A calm voice said, “Please state your name.”

“Heather Fines.”

“Please state your call sign.”

“Untouchable”

“Call sign accepted.”

Heather waited while her fellow recruits chose their own call signs. Sometimes she heard a quick exclamation, she assumed when a bad name was chosen. But after a few minutes the Drill Sergeant began to speak again.

“Very good,” he began, “almost record time and I didn’t have to personally get involved with any choices.”

“Now, while you are here in boot camp, you are organized in a training platoon. This platoon consists of five squads of fifteen boots each. We have chosen five squad leaders from among you as well as an overall platoon guide who will be the interface between your platoon and myself as needed.”

“You will all get to know your squad mates and the other members of the platoon over the next few weeks but right now you will be told who the leaders are among you.”

One after another the first recruit in each line stepped forward, raised their arm and gave their name and call sign. Their voices were amplified by the com discs on each of their wrists. Despite so many being there, no echo or distortions occurred. ‘The wonders of super science’, thought Heather.

From Donna’s row a slight man stepped up and said in a mild voice, “Danny Blake, Grifter.”

From her own row an incredibly well built man stepped forward and said “Cameron Burgess, Kiai.” The name was the sound someone shouted when breaking boards in karate. She wasn’t sure she liked the name and he was her squad leader. She smiled when she realized her powers didn’t fluctuate at all despite her negative thoughts. Great stuff this anti-anxiety drug. Too bad she wasn’t going to be allowed to use it all the time.

The next row was a smiling woman, “Elaine Hargrove, Wrath.” From her viewpoint Heather was sure Wrath was smiling up at someone on the platform. The reactions from the people on stage were strong enough that Heather sensed a tickle of amusement, along with many more of frustrated annoyance. The eyes of one of the women in the group flickered toward Wrath for a second and her mouth curled up toward a grin before she controlled it and resumed an absolutely flat expression.

Then from the fourth row came a man’s voice saying “Mickey Hynes, Bullet.” A flare of surprise and nervousness, and actual fear was coming from him so powerful that Heather easily noticed it. If not for the drugs in her system she would be beginning to push it away from her it was so strong.

The final squad leader didn’t radiate anything that Heather could pick up. He simply stepped forward and said “Kenny York, Iconic.” All of the other squad leaders had been older, at least in their mid-twenties. ‘Hell’, she thought, ‘that last one looked to be about forty’. This final squad leader was a kid, he had to be eighteen, fresh faced and ready to face the world. ‘I hope you don’t get crushed by it kid’.

After all five squad leaders had introduced themselves and stepped back into position next to their flags. The Drill Sergeant spoke again, “Your platoon guide,” was all he said.

The woman standing separately in front with the wealth of blue-black hair turned around and faced the crowd of recruits. With a smile on her face she said, “Victoria Raines, Precise.”

A flood of whispers ran through the recruits. ‘Precise?’ wondered Heather, ‘The super villain Precise? But if she…

Despite the drug in her system, another tremor briefly shook the field. Her hair began to writhe around her in the halo indicating her powers were fully active. Then, suddenly, the ring of recruits around Heather, were thrown back at least five or six feet and knocked off their feet. All except the one standing immediately behind her, the grass rippled at his feet, even the recruit in the fourth row behind him was pushed back slightly, but despite the force obviously being applied to him, he didn’t move even a fraction of an inch. His hair wasn’t even disturbed.

She looked over in horror at what she had just done, the area around her started to heave up, the grass looking like ripples passing through water and Heather was the stone dropped in to disturb the calm surface.

“I’m so sorry!” she wailed plaintively. She quickly tapped the disc on her right wrist twice and fell to the ground unconscious. 

Platoon Guide

Members of the US Army Force Ops Bravo Tango Training Brigade,  1st Platoon

Platoon Guide
Victoria Raines, “Precise” – Can detect and exploit weaknesses, she detects and eliminates weaknesses in her body as well.

(** denotes squad leader)

Squad 1
**Danny Blake, “Grifter” – Has the voice of persuasion.
Sunny Adams, “3.0 Silk” – Healer (Stitch), can perform surgery via their power.
Jackson Aimes, “Three of Me” – Creates three invisible energy duplicates of himself who can act independently.
Erik Allen, “Swamp” – Shifter, turns into a mud man and the area around him becomes an expanding swamp as long as he is shifted.
Adam Baker, “Hotshot” – Healer (Pharmacopeia), Synthesizes biologically active chemical compounds and can deliver them by touch.
Marc Bloom, “Can Do” – Powered, his body subconsciously follows any properly given order which it can physically carry out.
Brian Bowman, “Prism” – Shifter, becomes a crystalline figure who can focus light into lasers.
Ronald Boyd, “Flatworm” – Healer (Regenerator), very powerful, can regrow limbs and organs.
Donna Bristow, “Mata Hari” – Powered, projects the image she expects others to want, most of the time this equates to pure sex appeal.
Archie Burke, “Wire” – Creates wires which he can charge with bioelectrical or bioluminescent energy.
Sidney (Sid) Carlson, “Cutter” – Creates planes of force which can cut through steel.
Frank Cho, “Codex” – Information gatherer and mnemonic librarian. Understands all languages, can break most codes.
Ralph (Rafe) Clarke, “Riot” – Super strength and durability.
Dominic Collier, “Tremor” – Creates focused tectonic shockwaves.
Wayne Dean, “Tantrum” – Super strength and durability.  

Squad 2
**Cameron (Cam) Burgess, “Kiai” – Extreme focused super strength and durability for seconds at a time.
Murphy Collins, “SteamPunk” – Shifter, becomes a steam powered construct.
Sarah Crow, “Scar” – Powered, imperfect healer and self-healer, her power leaves behind terrible scaring.
Tom Crow, “Chitin” – Powered, extreme imperfect self-healing which causes nearly indestructible keloids to form, super strong and durable.
Darrin Daniels, “Windsprint” – Super speed with traction and inertia control.
Daryl Elliott, “Focus” – Enhancer, does not increase power but increases control over the power.
Heather Fines, “Untouchable” – Powered, Advanced mind, extreme self-protective telekinesis, minor telepathic sensing.
Sam Fox (Fox), “Tempo” – Can increase or decrease others speed via music.
Henry Franks, “Splint” – Healer (Patch), can preserve and prolong life but not actually heal.
Andy Garcia, “There” – Quantumly entangled with his brother Fred, minds run in parallel, can teleport to each other or switch places instantly, share damage between them, physically enhanced.
Fred Garcia, “Here” – Quantumly entangled with his brother Andy, minds run in parallel, can teleport to each other or switch places instantly, share damage between them, mentally enhanced.
David Gill, “Subtext” – Advanced mind, empathy and telempath
Alan Goodman, “E-racer” – Powered, charged with electricity, can use it to shock by touch, enhances his nerves and muscles to all him to move at super speed.
Jennifer Grant, “Doubletime” – Strength, speed, endurance, and reaction time are two or three times human maximum. In addition she only needs to see an action once to be able to duplicate it.
Raymond (Ray) Guzman, “Echo” – Can memorize and duplicate actions, sounds, and images with short term photographic memory and reflexes.

Squad 3
**Elaine Hargrove, “Wrath” – Physically enhanced with adaptive reflexes.
Jan Hansen, “Acme” – Shifter and summoner. The shift is controlled, the summoning is not. He becomes a living cartoon character with attributes reflective of the particular character and the indestructibility associated with such characters. The summoned creatures and objects are all small cartoons but he has no control over what he summons or what they do.
Kensington (Ken) Howell, “Minimal” – Advanced mind, telekinetic only, very low level
Terrence (Terry) Hubbard, “Tiny” – Super strength and durability, physically very large
Sam Jacobs, “Thug” – Super strength and durability
Gregg Kelly, “League” – Six different power sets which function one at a time, each set is controlled but no control over which set is active at any given time. 
Bill King. “Wall” – When standing still immovable, super strong, and indestructable
Douglas King, “Bonded” – Advanced mind, very long range telepath but needs to establish a link first, once established no limit on range
Tim Lambert, “Third Law” – Force controller
Sandra Levin, “Overwhelm” – Becomes more powerful the more opponents she faces
Cesar Lowe, “Slate” – Shifter, stone form, super strong and durable, can merge with earth and stone
Max Malone, “Muscle” – Super strength and durability, able to control the tensile strength and recoil of his body, no pain sensation, minor self-regeneration
Matt Mason, “Evac” – Mid range, large scale, teleporter. Can only send people away from him. He cannot teleport himself.
Kristopher McKenzie, “Planar” – Can redirect the force of gravity.
Philip Miller, “Horror” – Shifter, becomes his opponents greatest fear

Squad 4
**Michael (Mickey) Hynes, “Bullet” – Powered but has a gun which controls and limits his power. Creates matter and energy, the gun allows him to create bullets at will.
Benjamin Moore, “Plateau” – Diminishes energy within a wide zone around him
Raina Moss, “Menhit” – Physically enhanced, high level super strength, agility, durability, also appears to have an intuitive grasp of single combat tactics.
Tina Mossette, “Wormhole” – Creates small tunnels in space connecting two points within line of sight.
Frankie Ormond, “Deadzone” – Completely negates transmitted energy surrounding himself or in a targeted area.
Vanessa Oxbow, “Vox” – Technopath with significantly altered physiology
Curtis (Curt) Pierce, “Clockwise” – Advanced mind, limited telekinetic, can only make things spin in place.
Debbie Preston, “Alter” – Can use paint to alter inanimate objects
Peter Raines, “Escher” – Folds and warps space in a wide area, uses this to teleport
Don Rawley, “Sensorium” – Full sensory awareness and processing
Alfred (Al) Reeves, “Blockade” – Advanced mind, limited telekinetic, can only stop movement 
Lucas (Luke) Romney, “Guerra” – Power thief and mimic
Brad Rose, “Bashful” – Powered, turns invisible when nervous
Michael Ross,     “Madness” – Manifests hallucinations as semi-physical entities, projects images
Darnell Rowe, “Fulcrum” – Highly specific ability to warp space

Squad 5
**Kenny York, “Iconic” – Super strength, durability, flight, appears to be able to break the laws of physics
Brendon Samuels, “Biotech” – Can read and alter genetic material
Evan Snyder, “EMT” – Healer (Patch), can extend and preserve life but not actually heal damage
Jeremy Soto, “Bodybag” – Healer (Preserver), can place people he is in contact with into a stasis where damage no longer affects them.
Melanie Thomson, “Feather” – Can decrease her or a target’s weight and inertia
Jimmy Underwood, “Outside” – Summoner, claims to see parallel dimensions and call forth beings from those dimensions.
Edgar van Deme, “MMO” – Creates duplicates of himself along active internet connections only.
Cedric Vega, “Pyroclast” – Powered, high level pyrokinetic, always on fire.
Lyle Wagner, “Thief” – Short range point to point teleporter, does not have to see the item or person he is moving when he does it.
Marlon Walsh, “Stomp” – Super strength and durability.
Walter Warren    , “Goon” – Super strength and durability.
Raul Weaver, “Heavy” – Super strong and dense.
Dave Wilkinson, “Reciprocate” – Absorbs damage and can rapidly return it at about 250% of what hit him. 
Billy Williams, “Pockets” – Can open and store items in small extra-dimensional spaces.
Rudy Zimmerman, “Silica” – Elemental controller, controls dust, sand, and glass.

A Calculated Response: Chapter 9

Chapter 9:

Conversations, Flashbacks, and Subtext

The newly minted Brigadier General A.W. Wright, Tony to his friends and Steadfast to those he climbed the ranks of Force Ops with, looked out from the reviewing stand at the first platoon of his new command. His Command Sergeant Major had just had the trainee leaders announce themselves and something… unexpected had happened.

Irv?’ he sent the thought out to his adjutant.

Yes sir?’ his thought was returned.

Can you explain that?

Yes sir, one of your recruits just went Bug Fuck Crazy’.

Most people would say you couldn’t glare at someone telepathically but over the years Tony had found he could somehow manage it.

Sorry sir’, came the curt apology from Irv.

Having the call sign Brief means you are supposed to inform me not give me short answers’.

Yes sir! Of course, sir! The recruit in question is Heather Fines, call sign Untouchable. She’s a powered with Manhattan level telekinesis dedicated to self-protection as well as minimal telepathy which apparently helps to guide her telekinesis’.

Manhattan class teke? How?’ Tony wished yet again they had given him more time to prepare for this command. At least he got to take Irv with him and got him a promotion of his own. It really wouldn’t befit a general to have a Captain as his adjutant.

Her range on the telekinesis has been mapped at a minimum of one point three miles at which point it was still strong enough to shatter concrete. At close range it can deform X-20 alloys’.

We can discuss the impossibilities you just quoted me but for now… What the hell is she doing in this unit?’ he shouted mentally. ‘Doctrine on powereds in Force Ops is, If and when their powers do not constitute a direct threat to those around them and can be adapted or controlled through training, psychological counseling, physical or technological means only’, he quoted it from memory, hell he helped draft the rules after Operation Praying Mantis. He stared directly at the fallen woman where D.C., two of his corporals and three of the recruits were now gathered around her.

According to her file, the telekinesis seems to have an upper limit of damage to human life. No one has been killed or seriously injured by her despite an incredible amount of area wide damage to structures and roadways. The speculation is that’s part of the interaction with her telepathy’.

Be that as it may, I want her out of the unit now’, Tony’s frustration echoed to his adjutant who knew he was only going to make things worse.

We can’t do that sir’, Irv sent back with equal frustration. ‘This platoon can’t be altered, that was part of other set of orders. You remember, the ones I don’t know about’.

Accelerate us Irv’.

Irv glanced back at the scene unfolding in the second row of the training platoon. ‘How fast?’ he asked.

Tony was a bit surprised he bothered, he knew what his answer was going to be. ‘Give us the maximum Irv, the maximum’.

Irv’s concentration became palpable to Tony, telepathically linked as they were. Then the truly unique part of his power came into play. Their thought processes were accelerated until everyone around them could barely be seen as moving. It had several advantages, it would let them discuss the situation and make plans before it was even complete. More importantly, it would keep their conversation hidden from other telepaths. At least he never heard of a telepath who could read minds going over a hundred times as fast as normal.

Alright Irv’, Tony started finally feeling safe to talk, so to speak, with his adjutant. ‘What have you learned from them?’ Tony instinctively tried to turn his head to look at the other members of his “staff” who shared the reviewing stand with them. His head didn’t actually move since he was thinking much faster than his body could react.

Not much’, unease leaking through the telepathic communication, ‘most of your staff are among the most telepathically shielded people I’ve ever come across. And that includes other telepaths and spies I dealt with during my cold war activities’.

Well, then let’s take them one by one’, he replied. The inability of Irv to read them didn’t surprise him but heightened his concerns. He took a huge risk with his career to even get Irv here with him, there were attempts to block his transfer all the way up to General Glenn’s office. He was lucky to have him and couldn’t imagine taking this command without him. Doubly so given the last minute transfer, the lack of his own staff, and having no chance to even meet his people formally before the recruits arrived. At least Irv had a few days here to poke around, he was the best ICE officer he had ever met, and it was clear someone didn’t want an ICE officer here with him. ‘Focus on the staff and NCOs attached to the First Platoon only. If you covered my entire command I don’t care how fast you keep us, someone will notice’.

Before I get into individuals, let me give you a few generalities.

Go on, the floor is yours Irv’.

All of the NCOs have been attached to the training brigade here at Camp Starlight for years. Despite that, your Command Sergeant Major, D.C. Wellington has telepathic shields just as intense as your officers’.

Interesting, Daryl has been in charge of the overall training of Force Ops recruits for the last five years. He’s one of the best drill sergeants they’ve ever had. His predecessor, Torpedo, who trained me, has nothing but good to say about him and the members of my old command who trained under him have nothing but respect for him’.

I remember Torpedo’, Irv added, ‘he trained me too, no one impressed him’.

Well Daryl did, enough that he recommended him as his replacement and enough that he told me he should be trusted without hesitancy’.

Well the details of his career are fairly straight forward. He joined Force Ops at the age of eighteen, top of his training brigade, advanced training in Infantry, active service in the Middle East for five years, two years here as Torpedo’s right hand man, then promoted to CSM on Torpedo’s retirement five years ago. There are no red flags in his file’.

Nothing unusual about any of the NCOs under him? These shields couldn’t have an innocent explanation?

Tony could feel the disbelief in Irv’s thoughts. It was the psychic equivalent of staring down your nose at someone and saying “really?”

OK I suppose not’, Tony shot back, ‘but what about the other NCOs?

You have six training NCOs and five support NCOs’. This part was familiar enough to Tony from the briefs. Most of them were more recent then when Tony came through Camp Starlight, some of the support staff was around back then. He listened carefully to see if there was anything Irv picked up on that he hadn’t.

The training staff are Sergeant Merry Poshen, Mucus; Corporal Johnathan Lee, Battalion; Corporal Terry Fletcher, Photon; Corporal Everett Dunn, Boss; Corporal Colin Osborne, Shove; and Corporal Krista Lambert, Custody’.

That was Shove who was dealing with the rowdy recruit just before right?

Yes sir, he frequently deals with the difficult cases on the first day. D.C. doesn’t want to deal with them himself initially unless he has to. He likes to set all his people up as superior to the recruits’.

Tell me about the Sergeant’.

Merry Poshen, Mucus, attached to Medical division as a trained counselor. No degree, just practical training, so didn’t receive a commission automatically. She’s powered, utilizes technological compensation, and serves as the counselor for the recruits, powered and supers alike’.

What about the support personnel?’ he asked shifting gears without getting more detail about the training cadre.

Master Sergeant Shaun Marshal is the groundskeeper, he goes by the call sign Thumb. He can modify and enhance any natural environment, that includes rapid plant growth, temperature regulation, etcetera. In addition to being responsible for the lovely grounds in the middle of the Nevada desert, he is used to shape any number of the training grounds for the recruits’.

Next’.

He has two assistants, Corporal Dan Woods, Environ, and First Sergeant Simon Lawrence, Mason. The three of them basically create all the non-technological physical challenges and obstacles the recruits will deal with’.

The other two support staff?’ Tony didn’t mean to be short with Irv, the whole situation had him a bit on edge and he needed more information to deal with it.

Master Sergeant Tina Delgado, Mindscape, and Master Sergeant Woodrow Christensen, Handyman’. Tony made no comment and Irv continued. ‘She is a high end illusionist, all senses, she can even simulate exotic sensations like zero-gravity. He creates focused temporal inversions’.

Please tell me I don’t have a time twister in my command’.

Not as such sir. He doesn’t travel time or cause others to. What he can do is rewind objects to an earlier temporal state, effectively repairing damaged items. It has no effect on people or other items which interacted with the item he rewinds. If a car smashed into a person and he fixed the car, the person would still be smashed. Same thing for any inanimate items the car may have smashed. His field is localized and contained. And it doesn’t work on living things. That hypothetical smashed person, he couldn’t do a thing about them’.

Fine then, I can see where such an ability would come in handy in a training camp. What sort of limits does he have?

Can’t do anything much past an hour and that isn’t easy for him, almost killed himself once during a mission repairing a downed helicopter so they could get out. The larger and more complex the item he’s repairing the harder it is as well. Micro-circuitry, he may have less than a minute, same for a building’.

Tony tried to nod, again the action never happened but the impression was clearly sent. ‘What training do they have?

Most of them are ETS. Mindscape tried training in ICE but couldn’t cut it. She transfered to Infantry and trained there. Environ is actually trained in the Armor division’, Irving paused, Tony waited. He knew that Irv was waiting because he was commander of the Fourth Armored Regiment before accepting this command. When Tony made no comment Irv continued. ‘His abilities convey manipulation of his surrounding but in a much more offensive way than normally seen. In addition they convey enhanced protection and survival making him suited for Armor division’.

Tony’s gaze was still locked on the fallen recruit, Untouchable she called herself he recalled. ‘Fitting name for her’, he thought to himself.

Yes it is’, Irv replied. Tony had forgotten that Irv heard everything he thought through the link, not just what he wanted to send. She was still down, the others were still in the act of bending over to check on her. They still had plenty of time with this distraction he decided. ‘Tell me about my officers’, Tony sent to Irv, this time intentionally.

It’s an interesting lot you have’, he thought across the link, ‘I assume the same orders hold true for your staff as for the recruits? No removing any of them?

Am I going to want to?

No…’ Irv replied slowly, especially considering their rate of thought, ‘no one stands out as someone you will want to remove but there are some unusual officers in your staff’.

You could say that about most officers in Force Ops’.

True… but tell me what you think when we are done reviewing them’.

Of course’.

We’ll go by rank order. You have two Lieutenant Colonels on your staff, both are ETS. You hit the mother lode because between these two they hold more patents than pretty much every other tech brilliance super in Force Ops, DARPA, and DOD’.

Impressive’.

Well here is where the weird starts. Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Bonner, fifteen years in grade, specializes in adaptive technology including technological methods to overcome the limitations of powereds. Stationed at the HAARP research station for the last ten years, moved down when it began to be scheduled for closure’.

HAARP? That doesn’t make much sense, that’s a communications and surveillance research project, it’s not a general research facility and it’s not a place you would work on adaptive technology. It’s too far removed from the rest of the world’.

Right, almost like they wanted somewhere remote that not too many people could confirm whether or not you actually worked there’.

Are you saying it’s fake?’ Tony asked conveying disbelief in an outright lie being documented in the files.

Not so you could prove it. His clearances are all most secret. His work designated independent. But it’s not a large base and it goes out of its way to be open and transparent because of all the conspiracy theories surrounding it. You would think one of them would have managed to figure out the truth about the place’.

You’re off topic’.

Sorry sir. I spoke to two people who have been stationed there and neither ever saw anyone who fit his description’.

Why?

I don’t know but he not only has incredibly good telepathic shields, trying to listen to him gives me a headache, like being in a room with a white noise generator, it grates on the nerves. He’s the real deal when it comes to tech, probably the single best tech brilliance super at adapting powereds using tech. He’s working with several of the new recruits including Untouchable. He designed and redesigned the limiters being used on the Manhattan level pyrokinetic in the fifth row, Pyroclast. He dealt with those two as potentially dangerous without adaptation before they were called up for training. He has submitted a detailed plan of approach for several other powereds as well as supers with unique limitations on their powers that he feels that he can improve with adaptive technology. His call sign is Workaround, I’m sure you can see why’.

Get me the summaries Irv, later... I can’t stand techno-babble’.

Of course sir. Your second Lieutenant Colonel is Adam Hill, Queue’.

There was a distinct pause in the telepathic conversation while Tony decided how to phrase his next question. ‘Did a tech brilliance supply officer really name himself after a James Bond character?’ he finally asked straight out.

The mental sighs were getting all too common in this conversation. ‘Yes and no sir. He is formally listed as Queue, the word, not Q the letter. In the stories Q stands for Quartermaster. Colonel Hill has stated formally his call sign is Queue as in line up and get your new toys. The parallels are quite obvious however. He specializes in miniaturized and concealed technology which makes the James Bond parallel even more obvious’.

Wonderful, he’s a hair splitter and a latrine lawyer no doubt. I assume from your earlier comments he’s worth it?

Yes sir, he has designed many of the currently implemented concealed weapons systems in use as well as made significant improvements in standard weapons and armor. He and Workaround have a whole new series of prototypes they designed for this platoon. You will have the most advanced and technologically equipped group in all of Force Ops when their training is complete sir and we move on to the second half of the orders which I know nothing about’.

Mmmm’, came an indistinct murmur that conveyed agreement with an undertone of frustration.

Make it march’, the general ordered, he could see some changes in the figures around the woman, Untouchable, they needed to bring this to a close and then deal with that in real time.

His shielding is also high level but not as good as the others. It’s as if he is much less practiced at the techniques which grant the shielding. He is however very good at running complex calculations through his head constantly. If not for my abilities to speed up the connection I wouldn’t have gotten anything. As it is I got very little, but I could recover the image of a face he thinks of as highly important in whatever is going on. We’ll come to that in a little while’.

Major Olivia Townsend, Knightingale’, he continued with the next officer. Originally assigned as your adjutant before you became unreasonable and insisted on bringing me along. She’s now reassigned to plans and strategy.  Joined just over three years ago, directly recruited for officer training. She was Dean of Korman HCP for seven years prior to signing up. Left due to disagreements on the overall rules HCP operates under with respect to advancement and graduates. Before that she was close combat instructor for six years and had been an active hero under the name Knightingale for ten years prior. Her powers are age irrelevant. Specialized training in the Armor division. She was a travelling Force Ops recruiter until being posted here just prior to your posting. This is all confirmed. However she also has high end telepathic shielding leading me to suspect she is part of this group’.

She is HCP trained and was a hero for a long time. Wouldn’t you expect her to have such shields?

General, you don’t understand. I know the typical shields heroes have. I even know the exceptional shields a very few manage to develop. What this group has is so far beyond that as to make those shields seem almost non-existent. I don’t have issues getting through the typical shield. None of them are used to dealing with a telepath that works a hundred times faster than any other. But these shields stop me cold. All except Hill’s and, like I said, they seem less practiced. Maybe he’s so used to his normal defenses that he didn’t take the time. Maybe he was distracted, when you formally meet him you will understand just how possible that is’.

Tony had been having these sorts of conversations with Irv for a long time. There was something he wasn’t telling him. Something he wasn’t sure of…

Irv what are you holding back? You know that never works, I can always sense the hesitancy’.

OK Tony’, Irv added using his name, not his rank or sir. That told him this was just between them and very off the record. ‘Here’s the thing. These aren’t even just high power versions of your typical shields. If anything, I would call them stealth shields. The typical telepath even an HCP trained telepath would probably miss them completely and just think they didn’t get anything from the target. My speed changes make them stand out to me but it still doesn’t mean I can get through them. I’m almost afraid to see what’s on the other side of them’.

‘Tony, having shields that good begs the question, why are they needed? Most telepaths can’t get much from a casual scan and typical hero level shields and training is enough to deal with that. These shields would take a concerted effort and deep scanning for pretty much anyone to break. So again, why do they need them?

You don’t ask easy questions do you Irv? Go on, let’s get through the rest’.

Major Cynthia Alexander, call sign Jigsaw, doesn’t tell us much about her and I can’t tell you much more because her powers are… classified’.

What? First, that’s against the doctrine for Force Ops, knowing what your team can do is necessary for preparedness. Second, how can they be classified from me, I’m her commanding officer?

That’s an excellent question. I wish I had an excellent answer to go with it. It does tell us one thing; she’s intelligence, and not communications or electronic warfare. There wouldn’t be a need to classify those’.

OK so likely not a telepath, or if she is she’s memory or dream based, one of the exotics, not strictly communication’.

I get no indication that she’s a telepath, but with this crew I have no idea if I ever would. One more thing, most of her record of service is redacted and confidential but what little there is reads about as believably as Workaround being at HAARP for the last decade. I don’t know anything about who she really is or what she’s really done’.

Right, there is always more mystery than history’.

Lastly, Captain Caleb Martins, he’s your operations officer’.

Anything unusual about him?

Yes, but not quite in the same way. He has the same shields, though if he were the only one I wouldn’t have found it unusual at all. He is an activated reservist brought in due to his prior experience which is felt to be helpful in the current climate and situation. This guy is a legend, he went through Basic and AIT in Training Brigade Alpha’.

That’s impossible, that would make him at least sixty, he doesn’t look a day over thirty, thirty five at most’.

He’s eighty one, he was born in 1933, part of his power is he ages slowly. I think if he hadn’t had such a well-known record he might have had the same sort of dossier as Workaround and Jigsaw. His call sign is Bodyguard, and this is his second time in the Army. He originally joined at the age of seventeen during the Korean War where he served with distinction winning several medals for valor and reaching the rank of sergeant. Somewhere during that time he met Captain Starlight, who was serving as an aviator.’

‘In 1957 when Captain Starlight first approached the government about supers he was one of the original group that Starlight brought forward as examples of supers. His primary career was in the Secret Service. He was one of Kennedy’s bodyguards in Dallas. There are all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories regarding his involvement there’.

I’m sure’.

He continued on in the Secret Service and was active under Johnson and Nixon. Since he was active long before there was a Force Ops, when Nixon officially started it he trained in Force Ops as all governmental supers are required to do. In fact if he were in the Army at the time rather than the Secret Service he probably would have been one of the trainers in Alpha Brigade’.

‘Jesus’, exclaimed Tony.

After that he was involved in a number of redacted projects and finished his career in the DVA. He was retired at sixty five failing an appeal that age wasn’t the same for him as compared to others. For the last sixteen years he has been a private contractor and consultant on super affairs and security’.

Anything else?

Not about him but there are a few civilian specialists that bear mentioning’.

So mention them Irv’.

The first is Dr. Andreas Nichols, he’s head of the MCP and he has been called in to consult on and help recruit healers. I wouldn’t even mention him except he has the same shields’.

Are you sure something else isn’t happening, that something external is causing the shielding effect? Why should one of the best known physicians and healers in the country have shields like that?

Why indeed? I can’t answer that’.

Who else?

Two more. The first is a guy who seems to come in and out, I don’t know what to make of him. He doesn’t have shields and my scans haven’t detected anything out of the ordinary but he often meets with some of those with shields. As well as meeting with various others, to be honest, if he hadn’t been meeting with them I wouldn’t have even noticed him. Like I said I don’t know what to make of him. His name is Special Agent J. Alec Godwyn, and I probably wouldn’t even mention him except I’ve seen him with the last civilian specialist I have concerns over’.

And that is?

His name is Harold Brooks, Agent Brooks to be more precise, though I’m not sure of what agency. He meets frequently with Majors Townsend and Alexander, and occasionally with the others including both Dr. Nichols and Mr. Godwyn. The really odd thing is he doesn’t seem to take any precautions to not be seen. It’s like he doesn’t care if we notice him. He does have shields but I’ve barely been able to even try and scan him. I keep getting interrupted every time I’m about to.’

That’s odd’.

Oh let’s not forget about the last thing. His is the face Colonel Hill thinks is important’.

Put it all together for me Irv. What do you see?

Not to be a conspiracy nut but… there is a conspiracy here. Someone is manipulating things behind the scenes’.

Why?

Again I don’t have an answer for that but I do have another question’.

Yes?

Why have all the officers, the lead trainer, and some of the civilian consultants all part of the conspiracy and then put you in command? It makes no sense. If whoever is doing this put one of them in charge, less fuss, no worries about being discovered, everything is contained. Now they need to deal with you’.

Maybe they didn’t have the pull to get one of their people in command’.

Sir, they got multiple officers appointed, several of which don’t seem to actually be Force Ops. They gave them records that will hold up to the highest level of scrutiny. This training brigade has been handpicked by someone they weren’t assembled randomly or by enlistment date, location, power types, anything. They were chosen. Do you think someone who could do all that couldn’t get one of their own appointed as commander here?

Irv, before we go on, is there any possibility that this conversation is either detected or worse, understood?

A wave of introspection came across from Irv, ‘Normally I would say none at all, now I will say I doubt it. But you need to remember my powers are common knowledge in Force Ops, and while the sheer ability I have developed with the enhanced speed over the years may not be so commonly known, we have two of the finest tech brilliance supers and a completely unknown ICE officer who might be trying to see what they can see’.

That’s a chance we’ll have to take. Brace yourself for a data dump…

__________

Irv found himself standing in a waiting room. There was a regulation desk sitting outside a door, a picture of the President was on the wall behind it with a US flag on its left and the flag of the United States Army on the right with the blue War Office Seal set on a field of white. At the desk sat a young woman in the black uniform of Force Ops, her brown hair set in a tight regulation bun. Her rank insignia indicated she was a captain. Everything about this office screamed minimalist efficiency, from the obviously uncomfortable seats to the locations of items on the secretary’s desk.

The door had an engraved name plate next to it which read Major General Joshua Glenn. I guess a two star general rates a captain as his receptionist’, he thought.

Suddenly, Tony was standing next to him waiting for him to speak.

“Fuck… Tony you know how much I hate getting dumped directly into a memory like this.”

“Yeah I do,” he chuckled, “and you know how much I love doing it to you. And be glad no one can hear such insubordinate talk from you.”

“Yeah I’ve learned that much over the years,” Irv answered, completely ignoring the crack about being insubordinate. “I still don’t know how you manage it, no one else can send me directly into one. For anyone else I have to initiate it.”

“I’ve told you time and time again it’s a manifestation of my powers. Everyone thinks I’m a strongman, I’m not. I move through obstacles and it’s not a strength thing… well not exactly... it’s a matter of strength of will. It’s no different from when I walk through a wall, it’s just a wall in your mind.”

“Well walking through that wall hurts like a mother…” his thought was interrupted as the outer office door opened and let in Tony.

He looked at him closely, this one was wearing a black dress uniform with the bird insignia of a full colonel on the shoulder straps. Numerous ribbons and medals decorated the left breast, and the insignia of Force Ops, an American bald eagle clasping lightning bolts decorating each lapel.

“You did this just so you can see just how ugly you are, right Tony?”

“Shut up and pay attention Irv. Joke all you want later but I brought you here to notice anything I didn’t.”

The other Tony approached the desk where the Captain sat. “Colonel Wright to see General Glenn!” he said smartly.

“He’ll be right with you Colonel Wright. As you can imagine, it’s been busy around here. Please have a seat and I’ll call you as soon as he’s ready.”

The scene froze with Tony’s doppelganger half turned toward the chairs that lined the wall.

“What do you see Irv?”

Irv looked around the room, nothing special, a typical military waiting room. Clean, functional, none of the magazines or random paintings or photographs you would find adorning a civilian waiting room. He looked at Tony’s doppelganger, nothing worthwhile there either, it was Tony and the image was filled in by his own perceptions of himself, it didn’t reflect memory so much as self-image. Then his gaze fell on the secretary and her desk. ‘Pretty’, he thought ‘in a rather severe sort of way, Tony’s type of woman. Probably reflects his memory of her more than reality. But there’s something with potential’, he realized as he looked at what she was doing.

His gaze fell on the appointment book open on the desk, a pencil in her hands in the midst of marking something. Given the issues with electronic security, especially in a world where a person could mentally interface with computers, many had gone to keeping simple records on paper. He looked down at the book, the pages were blurred and fuzzy. Tony hadn’t paid much attention to it even though the pages would have been visible to him. ‘Probably distracted by the pretty girl’, her face was sharp and defined, a marked contrast to the memory of the book.

Oh well, I owe Tony a bit of a headache’. Irv concentrated and the pages of the book came into sharp focus. Tony’s avatar here in the realm of memory grabbed his forehead as if suddenly pained.

“Did you have to do that Irv?”

“If you wanted me to read the book I did. I had to sharpen your memory, sharp things hurt.”

“Couldn’t you have warned me? Or done it more gradually?”

“Couldn’t you have asked me to enter your memories instead of dragging me here?” he replied chuckling.

“Point taken,” he said as he and Irv both maneuvered around the desk to look closely at the book.

8:00 AM – Sens. J.R., A.T. & I.W. √ √

9:00 AM – Col. J.C.P. √ √

10:00 AM – Staff Meeting √ √

11:00 AM – Col. A.W.W. √

12:00 PM – Lunch Meeting, H.B.

The appointments later in the day were blocked from view by the Captain’s arm.

“Good eyes Tony, you caught enough of a look for me to get the whole thing.”

“Yeah, and it’s a very interesting list of visitors, I’m the most innocuous one there.”

“Who’s Col. J.C.P., I don’t know them?”

“It almost has to be J.C. Pruitt, otherwise known as Plexus. He’s my predecessor as commander of Camp Starlight and the Training Brigade.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, why didn’t they just keep him running the place? He’s done a fine job up till now and, let’s be honest Tony, you’re much more of a fighter than a teacher.”

“Be patient Grasshopper, all will be revealed… sort of. I wish we can turn the pages or look in the desk drawers.”

“You know that’s not how this works, it’s your memories we’re looking at, not the actual office. If we walked through that door now it would be an empty area, we go only follow the memory. I can enhance images and such but it’s got to be there for me to do anything with it. Anything else would be pure imagination.”

“Yeah I know but someday we need to find you an assistant who can look back in time or something, would be a great compliment to your abilities.”

“I thought you hated time based powers?”

“I do, just thinking about them and their ramifications gives me a headache. Doesn’t mean I don’t see the potential in them. Speaking of that, how many quantum powered trainees do we have?”

“First we would both need to understand what that means.”

Tony looked over at Irv and frowned. “Just answer the question without too much exposition on self-doubt if you please.”

“Well Escher warps and folds space, no true impact on time but he definitely is in that general area of power. There’s another guy who warps space but only within very limited definitions and there’s a woman who can open small wormholes within line of sight. You have a pair of twins who appear to be quantumly entangled with each other. There’s a guy who claims to see other dimensions and pulls entities out from them. One recruit redirects gravity, another creates pocket dimensions, and one actually changes reality within very specific limits. I think that’s about all the ones you might consider quantumly powered, no one deals with time.”

“Alright, let’s move on.”

The image started moving again. Tony’s other self sat down on one of the chairs to wait, Irv didn’t feel like waiting in real time so he sped up the motion and in a few seconds the outer door opened and he returned the flow to normal.

Tony’s memory of himself stood up and turned to the door. General Glenn stood there hand on the door knob but facing away, still talking to someone in the hall. As soon as Tony’s image noticed the face is stood ramrod straight and snapped a perfect salute. The General, had paused in the doorway to finish his conversation and Tony saw him in sharp relief. Two stars on each shoulder strap, relatively new for him, Irving recalled. He was fit, about six feet tall, dark blond hair going gray, kept short to military standards if not quite high and tight. ‘How much of that gray is since Meredith Falls?’ Irv wondered. He had noticeably fewer campaign ribbons than Tony did. ‘So much of his record is redacted I’m surprised he has any at all’.

Unfortunately whatever it was the general was saying was merely a buzz in Tony’s memories and the face of the person was just a blur. “This is going to hurt again Tony.”

“At least this time I’m ready for it,” he said as he grimaced and gripped his head yet again, a small groan escaped his gritted teeth. “Yeah. Not as ready as I thought.”

“Sorry. The fainter the memory, the more it hurts. This one, well you barely caught anything even on a subconscious level.”

The face of the man the general was speaking to became clear, not a man at all but a woman. She looked familiar to Irv, she was young and very pretty, the word vibrant came to mind though somehow it was superimposed with a deep sense of tiredness. “Surprised you didn’t have a sharper image of her Tony.” She was not in uniform but had a badge indicating she was an approved visitor, even with his enhancement the badge was still a blur. “Didn’t it say he was coming from a staff meeting? What’s he doing speaking to a civilian?”

“Let’s go back a bit,” Irv said while making a rotating gesture with his pointer finger as if rewinding an old fashioned tape, “and see if we can pick up the last of the conversation.”

Tony’s doppelganger dropped the salute moved backwards to his seat again, the door closed with General Glenn withdrawing from the room and then it all started to replay again. Tony’s previous seat was right next to the door, so as soon as it cracked open, sound carried to his ears, it was so low pitched it was no wonder Tony only registered it subconsciously.

A woman’s voice came from outside the door, “I’ll finish what I’m doing and be available in about a month.”

“Good,” replied General Glenn just as quietly, “I need another set of eyes I can trust outside the command structure. I’m not so sure how much I can trust them.”

“I wish I could be there sooner. Too much to do still, too few of us strong enough to help.”

“Don’t worry about it. The recruits will be in red phase for the first three weeks anyway. You wouldn’t have much time to deal with them. Turns out your friend, Mr. Burgess, will have his work cut out for him. I need to cut this short. Expect to hear more details from me within the next twenty-four hours.”

With that the General turned into the waiting room, saw Tony standing there and returned the salute saying, “At ease Tony. Let’s go into my office and talk.”

Tony’s doppelganger followed the General into his office. It was larger than the waiting room, divided into two areas, a large wooden desk on one side and on the other a small conference table with a smart board set on the wall. The table was rectangular and had five seats with keyboards and track pads set before them.

The General sat down behind the desk and with a gesture Tony followed suit opposite him. On the desk were a small plaque and a picture frame angled so that it could be seen from both sides of the desk. The image of the plaque was blurred but the picture showed a woman, about fifty and a young man who looked about twenty. He was lanky, with long blond hair, there was a clear resemblance to the woman in the photo but also to the General.

“Your son?” Tony’s image asked the General.

“Yes,” replied Glenn, “as you can probably tell from the haircut, he didn’t follow me into the military.”

“Not uncommon to see that.”

“Oh don’t get me wrong, I am immensely proud of him. He made his choice and I supported it.”

“I’m sure he will continue to make you proud sir.”

“Hmm, yes…” he said a bit more distractedly.

After a few seconds of silence the General redirected the conversation. “Tony, how long have you been in charge of the fourth armored division?”

“Six years sir,” Tony’s image answered.

“That’s a fairly long time. And in that time how much action have you seen?”

“We’ve been deployed on seven combat assignments and backed up three others.”

“Sounds like you might be ready for a change of pace.”

“Sir?”

“Pause it Irv,” requested the actual Tony.

The scene froze, a shocked look starting to form on Tony’s face.

“What do you think I’m thinking right here Irv?”

“Probably happy, getting a promotion, though I would guess looking at your face that it came as a complete surprise.”

“Unfortunately you would be wrong. I figured I screwed up on one of those active assignments he asked me about and I was about to be retired and put out to pasture.”

“What? Why? You’re a superb officer. You have one of the best reputations in the entire army let alone in Force Ops.”

“Yeah I always thought so, I’ve strained to be absolutely transparent and above the board my entire career. You ought to know, you’ve been my adjutant and ICE officer for the last ten years. I brought you with me from my prior assignment, and you got your oak leaf when I got my bird. I kept you for my whole command of the Fourth.”

“So why would you think you were getting canned?”

“You’re an ICE officer, not in the command line so this might be something you don’t realize. How many generals do you think there are in Force Ops?”

“Huh, I never thought about it. I could find out quickly enough but given the specialized nature of the branch, no more than five.”

“Definitely not more than five,” he agreed with an odd tone in his voice. “At the time of this conversation there was exactly one, General Glenn the branch commander.”

“Wait he’s the only general in all of Force Ops? Last I heard there were thirty thousand members of Force Ops. Yes its small compared to the entirety of the army but that number seems like it should have a few more in the upper echelons.”

“You just hit on the main issue.”

“I did?”

“Thirty thousand supers and powereds, those sorts of numbers make politicians nervous.”

“Well sure I suppose, but they’re Force Ops, they are serving their country.”

“Yes and there is relatively little open prejudice against supers though there is a fair amount against powereds, even among supers. Maybe especially among supers. But there is a great deal of subtle controls exerted on them. The laws governing heroes for example make a great deal of sense most of the time but they are very limiting. You would be hard pressed to find many examples of openly super politicians, I can’t think of any who are powered.”

“OK but…”

“And within Force Ops,” Tony continued not letting Irv interrupt with his question, “there are no generals with powers either super or powered.”

“Wait so General Glenn…”

“It’s a fairly open secret among the command officers. We all know Colonel is the best we can hope for.”

“So you…”

“Why don’t you hit play again Irv?”

Irv nodded, unsure what to say. With a small mental push the scene began to play out toward its conclusion again.

Tony’s image was obviously starting to react when Glenn held his hand toward him palm first and said “Hold on a moment Tony, don’t jump to conclusions. I’m not talking about retiring you, quite the opposite.”

“Sir?”

“There’s a change coming. A fairly major change, my promotion to Major General was part of getting that ready.”

“What sort of change Sir?”

“Well it’s all in this brief,” he said as he took out a leather folio embossed in gold with the seal of Force Ops and passed it to Tony, “the first sheet in there gives your orders and the next step. But to be utterly brief, you are being promoted to Brigadier General and transferred.”

“Promoted? But sir, there...”

“Yes, yes, I know there are no generals in Force Ops who are actually super. There had to be a first and I can think of no other officer who would do us as proud as you. Steadfast isn’t just your call sign, it’s a reflection of your personal character.”

“Wait a sec,” Tony said, coming to a sudden realization. “If I’m being transferred who is getting command of the Fourth, sir?”

“Just like you Tony, always worried about those under you. Well don’t worry. Max Reese is getting your old office and he’s getting informed of that right about now. He’ll be a short colonel just after the official transfer.”

“Max is a good man sir, he’ll do the Fourth proud.”

The images froze again.

“What do you really think of Talos being given command of the Fourth?”

“He’ll rise to the occasion and he’ll learn that not everything can be smashed out of the way.”

“I hope so, there’s something about turning into a fifty foot tall steel man that makes one think smashing is the best way to handle problems. You were just about the only one in the division who he couldn’t beat.”

“Yes, he is one of the most powerful of the entire armored division, not just the Fourth. Now he needs to be more than just powerful. If I could learn, so can he.”

“For the sake of our colleagues there, I hope you are right. I’ll start it up again.”

“Anyway, as I was saying, you are being given your star. From here you go to take command of Camp Starlight.”

“Camp Starlight? Sir you’re putting me in charge of the training brigade? What about J.C. he’s a fine man, doing a fine job.”

“He is, and he may end up in charge there again, though it would be damn hard to go backwards and right now I have another idea for where I would like to position him. This assignment is temporary for you.”

“I’m confused sir. Why formally transfer command if this is temporary?”

“It’s a confusing situation. In a perfect world we wouldn’t be doing things this way. It’s not close to a perfect world.” He looked closely at Tony. “How much do you know about the Meredith Falls situation?”

“I’ve read all the dailies sir.”

“That’s not what I asked Tony, how much do you know. How many of the eyes only documents have you seen?”

“Some sir, no way to be sure how many of the total, I don’t know the total.”

“Your assessment of the situation?”

“It’s our greatest fears come true, except the source isn’t a foreign power. It’s a bunch of home grown nut jobs.” He paused for a second realizing the candor with which he spoke and added. “Sorry sir, I will avoid such descriptives in the future.”

“It’s a very astute observation… when it’s just between us.”

“Yes sir.”

“A plan has been formed for Force Ops to take the lead in the fight against these and other… nut jobs. You are to be in charge of that initiative. However the current mandate of Force Ops does not allow for domestic activity. As such a new unit is being formed with that very mandate. You are to be in charge of that unit from its inception and training through its deployment. Tomorrow the recruits assigned to that unit arrive at Camp Starlight. They are to be the First Platoon of the Bravo Tango Training Brigade.”

“Sir, why not just transfer experienced men over to the new unit? That way there wouldn’t be a significant lag for training before they are active and in the field.”

“There are a number of reasons, the biggest of which is political. If we transfer current Force Ops members this will look like Force Ops as a whole is being given a mandate to operate on domestic soil. We aren’t we aren’t looking for such. We don’t want it to appear that we are. We can get away with transferring senior officers to the new unit, it takes years to train and season anyone above a second louie, but we need to build the core of this unit from scratch. Once their training at Camp Starlight is complete they and you will be transferred to a new base we are currently building for you. Until then you train them. For at least the first year they are out of the Training Brigade they will be a sum of your command, a bit over one hundred total including officer cadre and support staff. If successful, additional platoons will be trained and the command will expand. If not successful… well let’s not bother with that, I have every confidence in your abilities.”

“Thank you sir, I won’t let you down.”

“Included in that folio are briefs on the five officers I am transferring to your command specifically for this platoon. In addition six recruits have been identified as your platoon guide and five squad leaders, they are all targeted for OCS. Each has unique skills which will help you as this develops. Major Olivia Townsend will be your adjutant and she…”

“Excuse me sir?  I request to transfer Captain Irving Gill with me to serve as my adjutant. I’m sure Major Townsend is more than adequate for the job but given the short time I have to prepare and the delicacy and importance of this assignment I think having an adjutant who I know well, know their ins and outs, their abilities, and what I can count on them to do, would be of great benefit.”

“I’m sorry Tony, that’s not going to be possible.”

“But sir…”

“Tony even I get orders from above. The officer cadre for this assignment was chosen above my level.”

“Sir I don’t see how I can accept this assignment then.”

“Tony, the only way you could refuse is to resign your commission and leave Force Ops. There’s no going back.”

“Yes sir! I understand that.”

The image froze once more.

“Tony,” Irv said, “did it really happen that way or are you misdirecting your memories to play a joke on me.”

“No Irv, this is exactly how it happened.”

“You actually almost blew your promotion, hell your whole career, just to bring me along?”

“Well I didn’t think it would come to that, but yeah I did.”

“But why?”

“Because I knew I would need you; because something about this whole situation was already tickling my subconscious; and because everything seemed wrong somehow, too fast, too last minute, too thrown together. I need what you can give me and that was worth the risk.”

“Well I appreciate the faith in me.”

“Irv, in ten years you’ve never let me down. Don’t let this be the first time.”

“No sir!”

The image moved forward once more.

The images of General Glenn and Tony stared each other down for at least five seconds of silence.

“Why?” asked the General.

“Sir, you have indicated how important this assignment is. You have insinuated consequences for failure. I need every asset I currently possess and then some to give you the best chance of success. And going against those monsters who claim to be acting for our people while killing, maiming, and torturing them while telling us that acting out of necessity is tyrannical… well for that I want to win.”

“There is another level here Tony. You know what your being a general in Force Ops means don’t you?”

“I think so sir,” when Glenn waited for more he continued. “It means that when you leave your posting there is a good chance your replacement will actually be a super.”

“Tony, I’ve been working toward that goal for years. Don’t you want to advance that goal?”

“Yes sir, I truly do sir,” Tony replied with increasing formality. “But, that’s just another reason why I need Brief with me. Another consequence of failure neither you nor I want to see happen.”

“Alright Tony, I’ll get you Captain Gill, not sure how yet, but I’ll do it. But you listen closely. Remember what I said about you, that Steadfast wasn’t just your call sign but a reflection of who and what you are? Well that’s why you got this promotion. We need you in charge, I need you in charge. There were other names suggested to lead this, people outside of Force Ops. It took a great deal for me to convince the powers that be that it had to be you. If you resign or fail, well let’s just say I used up a decade of you owe me one’s for nothing.”

“I understand sir, I won’t let you down.”

The conversation was interrupted by a buzz from the intercom. The voice of the Captain from outside came over, “Sir, you wanted me to remind you that your next appointment is off site and you need travel time to get there.”

He pressed a button on his phone, “Thank you Jean, I’ll wrap things up.”

He looked back up at Tony’s image sitting across from him. “Sorry to cut this short. I’d like to speak more though, perhaps it’s best if I just send you on your way. Expect a set of orders for Major Gill by the end of the day.” The change of rank was definitely not lost on Irv. “Get out of here, read that folio carefully. It has everything you’ll need to know.”

Tony stood and saluted, “Yes Sir!”

He turned on heel and walked to the door. Just before he opened it General Glenn interrupted. “Tony?”

“Yes sir?” Tony replied pausing in the act of opening the door.

“It goes without saying that our discussions regarding my plans and your request didn’t happen. The orders contained in that folio, other than the transfer, are for your eyes only, understand?”

“Yes sir?”

“Good, that will be all.”

Tony finished exiting the room.

“Is that it?” Irv asked breaking up the silence as they followed Tony’s image down the halls of what Irv just realized was the Pentagon.

“Not quite, give it a few more seconds.”

Just before reaching the exit a Captain called out to Tony. “Sir, Colonel Wright?”

Tony turned and faced him, non-descript, thirties, good shape, no features that Irv could really enhance much.

“Sir,” he said saluting, “I have a message for you,” and he handed him a sealed envelope bearing his name.

“Thank you,” Tony replied returning the salute. “Who is it from?”

“I’m not sure sir. It was given to me via secure courier with the instructions to tell you to open it when no one could see it.”

“That’s it? A simple envelope, open when no one could see it?”

“What’s your name and posting?”

“Captain James Anselm, sir. I am posted to operations here at the pentagon… I’m a secure courier for the mail room.”

Irv glanced at his insignias, not Force Ops, just regular army. Tony’s doppelganger seemed to have reached the same conclusion and dismissed him.

Outside Tony’s image called for his car.

“Rank hath its privileges,” the real Tony said, “and right now I was going to utilize the privilege of having a driver and a private car.”

The scene moved forward and Irv and Tony were sharing the back seat of a town car with the memory of Tony as he pulled out the envelope.

He opened it and inside was a blank sheet of paper. He held it up to the light to see if he could detect any sign of writing of any kind. This didn’t make sense at all what…

Heya Steadfast’.

Irv was surprised, a telepathic message inside an accelerated telepathic memory dump. He couldn’t tell if it was from within or without.

“Calm down,” Tony said, “I was receiving a telepathic message. This is the memory of that, not someone managing to accelerate their thoughts and dive some awful number of layers deep into our heads.”

Fiver?

You got it. Sorry for the unorthodox method for contacting you but I’m sure this is secure, I’m not really sure about much else these days’.

Listen, this will last for no more than a few minutes. There wasn’t a great deal of space in a single sheet of paper, especially when the envelope was encoded with a push for no one to think about it too much but just get it into your hands’.

How?

It’s truly amazing the sort of tricks some advanced minds learn along the way. I’m not going to tell you who did this but I trust them at least as much as you trust Irv. OK?

OK. So what is this about?

First congratulations. I may have beat you to Colonel but you actually managed to make General, you bastard’.

‘Thanks, love you too. How’s your niece?

No time for pleasantries outside of the mandatory congratulations. Listen close and take this to heart. There is more hidden shit going on here then I’ve seen since the whole Overton nightmare. Something huge is happening and you get to be at the center of it this time. My sources haven’t been able to tell me much more but all the movers and shakers are moving and shaking. I’m watching where I can, and remember if you need it, I have some utterly trustworthy and dependable contacts outside of Force Ops. If you need me you just better make the contact as secure as this one’.

And without even a goodbye, the contact ended.

“Now stew on that one too Irv. And while we have a few seconds, here take a look at these.” Tony plucked the folio from the hands of his image. The whole dreamscape faded away leaving the two of them floating in a white area of nothingness. The folio remained in Tony’s hands. “The orders you don’t know about, all of them.” Irv knew Tony didn’t take this lightly, he was told they were for his eyes only and, despite the fact that he wasn’t actually looking at them with his eyes, he was violating his orders showing it to him. A minute later, as he read the contents of the folio, he understood why.

“Tony, I…”

“Not now, it will take too long and we need to get back. We can’t afford to end up standing motionless when the rest of those around us try to figure out what’s wrong.”

“But Tony…”

“Later,” and with that Tony apparently walked back through the walls of his mind. Irv’s vision cleared, though it felt like he had a spike digging around behind his eyeball. He focused once more on Heather Fines. She was still down on the ground. He checked his watch, ‘good, no more than five or six seconds passed. If anyone out here realizes what happened in there…

__________

David was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Starting in boot camp was not easy, they hadn’t gotten to their first physical exercises, he hadn’t been dressed down by a drill sergeant, he hadn’t even gotten the crew cut yet. There was an emotional impact of just being here.

Being an empath wasn’t easy. He had control of his powers, he could damp it down, but something always leaked through. Telepaths he knew described it as a background buzz, like being in a party and hearing snippets of conversation all around and every now and then catching something that made sense. It was the reason powered advanced minds sought solitude. For him it wasn’t a constant buzz, it was a constant tug on his own emotions.

He spent the whole bus ride alternating between jittery nervousness and being weepy. Trapped in a small confined area with more than twenty emotionally charged people it was bound to leak through. He had stopped going to the movies because if it was a comedy his own amusement was amplified by those around him had him falling out of his seat. If it pulled on the heart strings enough to cause a tear here and there he was weeping uncontrollably as the sadness doubled and redoubled with each person.

Of course at the end of the bus ride he had his own embarrassment to deal with. He was on the second bus where they seemed to put all the hyper-testosterone strong boys. As typical for their type one of them got it in his head he wanted one of the women. Luckily he had a jacket with him he could keep on his lap to cover his “embarrassment”. Oddly enough despite rejecting her suitor in a very physical manner, the woman he was hitting on was just as aroused as the testosterone boy. Then he realized, it wasn’t any attraction to the man that was arousing her, he didn’t sense any of that, it was the fight itself.

He was a bit shocked and was very happy to hear the Force Ops soldier come on to the bus and instruct everyone to get off the bus rapidly. Walking off the bus reminded him of other embarrassing times in high school when he had even less ability to block the emotional leakage than he did now.

What am I doing here?’ he thought to himself again as he made his way off the bus. ‘I can’t believe I was stupid enough to join Force Ops in the first place. The surge of patriotism following Meredith Falls had so many people thinking about joining up. The same thing happened after 9/11 but then I was too young to sign up so I never acted upon it’.

He looked around the grounds just like he had checked out all the people on the bus and again he couldn’t believe he was put around so many obviously combat heavy supers. They knew his powers. He told them everything about them when he signed up. He figured he would be trained for espionage or something. ‘My power’s no good for combat, I can read a mob but I can’t affect them, the telempathic part only works for one person at a time. It doesn’t make any sense for me to be here with these people’.

If he had a little less moral character, he could have used his powers for unbelievable personal gain and, let’s face it, as much sex as he wanted. If anything, it probably kept the women away. He was so nervous about accidently misusing his powers in that way, he was lucky he wasn’t still a virgin.

Right now, having stepped off the bus, that nervousness, that emotional instability, that sheer impact was amplified by seventy some odd people with various super powers and fed directly to him by his own power.

Not two minutes after he got off the bus, as he was milling around at the edge of the crowd, trying not to immerse himself in that sea of emotion, he felt a sudden surge of aggression from on the bus he had exited. The man, whose desires had caused him some embarrassment on the bus, came flying through the wall of the bus and landed twenty feet away amid the milling recruits.

A surge of anger hit him like a hammer. He found himself joining the others surrounding the recruit and the Corporal cheering for a fight to start. Before it could however he felt a sudden surge of panic behind him, he turned to see a young woman standing there and he felt near terror from her. Before he could react to her emotion, the ground began to shake slightly like an earthquake and as suddenly as it started, it all stopped, the tremor, the terror from the woman, and the immediacy of the fight.

David turned back to face the would be combatants and a voice rang out saying “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!”

The crowd around them dispersed but the strongman in ripped clothes wasn’t ready to go. David sensed continuing aggression from him, anger, shame, pent up sexual frustration. He was a seething cauldron of emotion and it was still about to boil over. He turned his power on him, he didn’t know what the rules were in such situations. He really didn’t care at this point, he knew what the right thing to do was. He damped it all down, he slowed the anger, removed the shame and replaced it with feelings that he was better than that, better than this scrawny man in black standing in front of him, he linked the sense of sexual conquest to keeping his cool, telling him subtly that if he didn’t explode it would impress the woman he wanted. He didn’t dare increase those desires to feed it further, he wouldn’t be responsible for rape, or given what he saw on the bus, more likely attempted rape.

He pushed it all into the strongman who hesitated, looked over at the people lining up and then back at the black uniformed soldier and said “Someday soon you and I are going to have to try that again. I guarantee a different outcome,” before stalking off to find his place.

Breathing a sigh of relief David found his number, twenty seven, in the second row. He noted with interest that he was only five spaces away from the woman who had such a fear response to the almost fight. ‘How is she going to make it in the army if she can’t take a fist fight? Even a super based fist fight’ he wondered as reached out carefully with his emotional senses.

She barely registered. Maybe it was just the sudden shock of it, an adrenaline fueled reaction and now she has it controlled. ‘Well one less thing to worry about’, he thought as he listened to the new commanding officer of this base and then was told to choose a name for himself.

He hadn’t considered this. He wasn’t going to be a hero who needed a name to be known by, he was in Force Ops, he assumed he would just be Private Gill. He picked up and attached the communication disc as instructed and tapped it twice when told to.

He heard, “Please state your call sign”.

What name should I choose?’ he wondered, ‘this is a big deal, this is how they are going to know me, the response it invokes when people hear it will be something I sense from now on. It’s got to be a good one’.

Any number of names ran through his head. Emo… Passion… Eros… Enflame… Dampen… none of them fit right.

After a few moments of silence the disc repeated, “Please state your call sign.”

He thought about his power. He was an advanced mind but not a telepath or teke. He was about emotions, the emotion that lay below the surface, the story that people kept off their face and tried to hide in their secret heart. He sensed things no telepath could sense. He read the emotional subtext and if wanted to he rewrote it.

Wait, there’s something there’, he thought. ‘Subtext… yeah I like that’.

“Subtext,” he said speaking into the disc and after a second came the response.

“Call sign accepted.”

After a few minutes the drill sergeant informed them that they would be divided into five squads, apparently each row was a squad because the first member of each row was the squad leader. At least he wasn’t in with the testosterone laden strongman. His squad leader introduced himself as Cameron Burgess and took the name Kiai. ‘Must be a martial artist’, he thought. He sensed an incredible calm and focus from him but there was something below the surface, something powerful, he couldn’t tell more without a going deeper than was smart right now. There was time. He would get to know everyone’s emotional state and hot buttons before too long.

When each of the squad leaders had gone the drill sergeant called for the platoon guide, whatever that was. A woman who was standing out in front turned to face them. David thought she was quite pretty, she was radiating a sort of smug satisfaction but there was frustration underlying it and a bit of well concealed fear as well. With a smile on her face, but no actual happiness beneath it, she said “Victoria Raines, Precise.”

From all around confusion sprang up. ‘Precise is the name of a super villain. Why would she take that name unless she was that villain?

Suddenly there was a spike of terror in his row, ‘damn it’, he thought, ‘that’s the same woman who had a fear spike earlier. This time I can…

David’s thought was interrupted when suddenly everyone surrounding the woman except for the man immediately behind her flew away from her. The ground rippled in concentric circles around her and she became a torrent of fear, confusion, self-loathing, and deep, deep sadness.

Her terrified voice wailed out “I’m so sorry!” and she did something with her arm and suddenly collapsed leaving everything still and people picking themselves up.

He couldn’t sense anything from her anymore. That was impossible, he even sensed emotions from unconscious people, as long as there was brain activity there was some basal level of emotions. Without realizing he was doing it he ran to her. He arrived at the same time as the drill sergeant, an unbelievably beautiful woman from the first row, and their squad leader. A moment later two corporals, a man and a woman, and another recruit, a man from the last row arrived. The recruit immediately knelt beside her laid his hand across her forehead. The female corporal was trying to get to her but there just wasn’t enough room.

“Flatworm!” shouted the drill sergeant, “Don’t you dare heal that woman or burnout anything you find in her system.” Then he tapped the disc he wore on his wrist and shouted into it, “Everyone else stand down, no one else approach this active situation.” His order was immediately transmitted to everyone’s disc and though they stirred, no one else approached.

“But drill sergeant, she’s in a coma,” replied the man from the last row, Flatworm apparently. “Whatever she took has her so deep she’s barely alive.”

“That’s the idea mister. That may be the only thing that prevented her from flinging everyone here halfway to the moon.”

“It’s a failsafe device,” explained the woman who had taken the hand of the unconscious girl, “it was given to her to control her powers if she needed to.” Her voice turned to a whisper, “she’s a powered and if she loses control it could cause a lot of damage.”

David stared at her, he was transfixed by her beauty, he wished that his power worked on himself because if he couldn’t calm his rising emotions he was going to embarrass himself again.

“What can we do,” she asked, “something set her off, she had already taken what was essentially a tranquilizer.”

“Wait a minute,” exclaimed David, “was this triggered by her fear?”

“Well from what I was told,” the beautiful woman answered, “her emotions play into how her ability reacts. Strong emotion, strong reaction, fear triggers it to protect her. But why would she suddenly think she needed protection?”

“Her,” David said while gesturing at Precise with his chin. “Her fear started right after she announced who she was.”

“Who is she?” asked the beautiful woman.

“You never heard of Precise? She…”

“Never mind!” interrupted the drill sergeant. “You, Subtext,” he said pointing right at David. “You can sense her emotions?” When David nodded he added, “and you can warn us when it’s about to get out of control?”

“I can do better than that drill sergeant. As long as I can focus just on her, I can keep her emotions blunted. I can suppress the fear completely.”

The drill sergeant stood up and looked at the man standing to the left of the collapsed girl. “You, Focus,” he said, “you are now number twenty seven, go take that place.” The man dusted himself off and walked to his new spot, David’s spot.

“Subtext, you are now number twenty one.” He pointed down at the unconscious girl, “this is Heather Fines, her call sign is Untouchable, and the two of you are now battle buddies until I personally say otherwise.”

“Battle buddies?” when the drill sergeant didn’t reply and simply looked at him sternly, he added “umm battle buddies drill sergeant?”

“Better. We will be explaining the concept of battle buddies soon but essentially the two of you are a pair, you are assigned bunks together, you do everything together, you do not separate unless you are given permission to do so and in this case permission only comes from me or my superiors. Got it?”

“But… umm… drill sergeant what about the shower and the bathro… I mean the latrine?” he asked remembering the military term.

“Welcome to Force Ops co-ed training son. When dealing with supers and powereds and the training we need to do in such a short amount of time, modesty is thrown out the door. I’m sure you can control the emotion of embarrassment in addition to fear.”

‘For her maybe,” David said under his breath.

“What was that?” he asked at the top of his voice.

“Umm, nothing drill sergeant!”

“Damn right it was nothing. You, Flatworm,” he said pointing at the other man still bent over her, “bring her around slowly. Subtext you keep her locked down. I get a tremble and you do fifty pushups. I get hurled and you better hope it kills me. Mata Hari,” he added addressing the gorgeous woman still holding her hand. “Get back in line, now!”

__________

Everyone was watching Heather as she was brought to consciousness once more and met her new battle buddy. No one was paying much attention to the reviewing stand where an interesting conversation was taking place.

Cindy leaned over to Olivia and in a low whisper said “see I told you we needed the ‘weak-ass empath’, but no you wouldn’t believe me.” Then she winked and stuck her tongue out at Olivia.

“Alright, alright, yes we need the weak-ass empath,” Olivia agreed. “I guess keeping him to get control of her ridiculous powers is worth it.”

“It’s a biological solution,” said Jesse, suddenly leaning between them pointing to the earpiece of his ridiculous glasses indicating he heard their whispers. “Use one weak super to control one incredibly powerful powered. I was so intent on finding a technological solution I never thought of this, even after I saw the roster.”

“None of us thought of it,” Olivia said, acknowledging their screw up.

“None of us had to,” added Cindy with a self-satisfied smirk on her lips.