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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
“Hmm, so you never run out of bullets?”
“Yeah, that’s part of it. I also make lots of different types of bullets.”
“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:
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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 Beta 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.”
“Please state your call sign.”
“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.