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 He was dressed in plain, well cut suit which was slightly out of date.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?”


“Flash Freeze?”




“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?”


“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.”


“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…”