“Sir, Mr. Lamont is here to see you.” Simon stood in the door, patiently waiting as Charles Adair looked up from his computer. There weren’t many people who could come calling on Charles Adair unannounced, not unless they broke in, but Isaac Lamont was one of the few with that privilege. Charles calmly saved the file he’d been working on, closed the program, and motioned for Simon to let his guest in.
Isaac Lamont was a man in his late forties, a few new streaks of gray dotting his temples since the last time Charles had seen him in person. He was wiry, both in frame and mind, yet carried himself with a confidence few humans could manage when meeting with a Super of Charles Adair’s caliber.
“Simon, see to it that we’re not disturbed. All protocols in effect, if you don’t mind,” Charles said.
Simon quietly shut the door; the sound of his footsteps hurrying down the hall echoed even through the thick frame for several seconds after he was gone. The two men waited a touch longer, giving the assistant ample time to switch on all the devices meant to deter remote listening, before they began to speak.
“I take it you’re here to tell me things were successful,” Charles said, motioning for his guest to take a seat.
“That’s a bold assumption. What if I’m here to deliver bad news?” Isaac took a chair slowly, only sitting after evaluating it to be sure nothing lay in wait.
“No one comes to tell me bad news in person. That’s what phones and email are for.”
“Well, I’d say it was a mixed bag.” Isaac produced a small thumb drive from his pocket and set it on the desk, a few inches away from Charles’s hand. “With the money you funneled into that Evers boy’s operation, we were able to track most of the payments and deposits made by the Sons of Progress. They’ve done a good job hiding the identities of their higher ups for a long time, but they finally got greedy enough to make some mistakes. Within the week, we’ll know the name of almost every leader in the organization.”
“Almost every leader?”
“We picked up a few of the lower-tiered ones already, disguised their capture as getting busted in Hero raids. The one at the top of their pyramid, the amplifier who calls himself Crispin, he seems to have kept his distance from all the cash. From what everyone says, he’s as careful as they come and insanely methodical. This operation is definitely going to cripple the group as a whole, but the big fish might have slipped the line,” Isaac admitted.
Charles picked up the flash drive and turned it over in his hands several times. “None of the money can trace back to me, correct?”
“My company has been setting up shell corporations and dummy accounts since my grandfather founded it; consider it something of a specialty. No, no one outside this room will ever know that you gave Nathaniel the money to spend on funding the Sons of Progress. So far as anyone will be able to tell, it was an anonymous collective of families who had loved ones put away by Heroes. There are a few rabbit holes they can go down, but none of them will turn up anything more than some costly goose chases.”
“Good. It certainly wouldn’t do for me, or your company, to fall under scrutiny right now. Not with things going so well. Our test group has held up far better than expected, and with the entire Hero world now gunning for the Sons of Progress and other radical Super empowerment groups, no one is sparing a single thought about the issue of Powereds being upgraded. In fact, we have a few lovely stories of heroism from the test group we can parade out if the topic does gain traction.”
“We got a lot out of it, no question there. I just wish the price hadn’t been so high,” Isaac said. “That reminds me, I authorized a hefty expenditure to lease some land on behalf of the two I assigned as their caretakers. It will keep them training and easy to watch all summer, but we’ll need some funds to cover the cost.”
“I’ll be glad to pay whatever is needed,” Charles said. “For this and all future projects.”
“Are you talking about what happened to that school, or the money I’m requesting?”
“Both.” Charles slipped the flash drive into the top drawer of his desk, then turned back to his guest.
“The cost of progress is always high. Society can only march forward when there are men like us: those willing to pay the prices that would make others balk. We must be heartless, in hopes of creating a better future. One with no need for men like us.”
* * *
It wasn’t as bad as the desert. Vince had expected the worst after his training last summer, but he supposed this wasn’t the same situation at all. The air was still warm as he stood in the dusty clearing; however, a gentle wind eased the scorch of the sun. A long plain stretched out before him, hard and barren. In the distance, he could see the dip of what looked like a ravine, though he’d have to get closer to be certain. Behind him was the beginning of a small forest, two old cabins resting in the verdant grass. He’d brought nothing more than his backpack, filled with the simple minimum of clothes and toiletries he’d need to survive and be decent around other people. Others had been . . . less sparing when they packed for the training excursion.
“Good God girl, did you pack nothing but weights?” Violet asked, dragging Alice’s second trunk across the ground. The first was in Alice’s hand, balanced between her fingers like a soap bubble as she walked toward the cabin on the left.
“Just some essentials. You don’t have to carry that though, I was going to take them one at a time until I saw how much room there was,” Alice replied.
Violet complied by dropping the trunk heavily to the ground and adjusting her own duffel bag. She, Alice, Mary, Jill, and Camille had claimed a cabin for the girls, and were in the process of defining space. Vince imagined it would be a tight fit, though it had nothing on the boys’ cabin, since they’d have three more than the girls. At least Nick would be a few days late. That would provide a bit of extra space as they settled in.
Perhaps they weren’t supposed to be too comfortable though, or maybe they were supposed to just be around each other as much as possible. Vince wasn’t sure he understood why the living arrangements had been set up as they were, but he trusted Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport. All of this had been done with the students in mind. He was sure the cabins were a part of that.
Vince had his heart in the right place, but he didn’t know enough about rental properties to understand that some were simply only available “as is,” and even mysterious organizations with suit-wearing agents have to answer to a budget committee eventually.
“This is going to be weird,” Shane said. He’d packed a pair of small bags that were resting at his feet as he surveyed the landscape. “I mean, probably not bad, but definitely weird. This is a nonstandard training area if ever I’ve seen one.”
With a smile and quick adjustment of his pack, Vince jerked his head toward the cabin. “Let’s go get set up. Mr. Rhodes said we’d be starting off with evening training, and from the stories Hershel tells, we don’t want to risk being late.”
Shane grabbed his bags and followed Vince’s lead into the cabin. He wasn’t wrong about it being weird, but Vince had known that from the moment the idea was pitched. Weird didn’t bother him anymore, if it had ever been an issue at all. Weird just meant different, and Vince liked the idea of being different. The strongest of Heroes were different, after all; by definition, they were unlike the masses. This was a strange place, no question about it, but it was also one where he could grow stronger. Next time, he wouldn’t be too late. Next time, Vince would be stronger.
The door slammed behind them as they began trying to find a way to cram so many people into such a small space. Outside, Hank Rhodes and Owen Daniels discussed the first night’s plan, while Mr. Transport popped in at random intervals with new necessities. The picnic table he materialized with, laden with food, would prove to be a particularly useful asset in the weeks ahead. Supers in training tended to work up an appetite, and this group was going to be working themselves to the bone.