Chapter 191

               Mary wasn’t underground, at least not yet. Instead she found herself sitting in a seemingly unused office tucked deep within the recesses of Lander’s Science Building. Dusty test tubes and neglected petri dishes lined the shelves nearby as she sat in the stiff plastic chair. It all felt very mundane, which was a curious sensation when dealing with anything even tangentially related to the HCP. She checked her watch, making doubly sure she was here at the right time. One minute until their scheduled meeting. It looked as though Dr. Moran would be late.

               No sooner had Mary considered that possibility than the hand on her watched lurched forward at the same time Dr. Moran breezed through the door, mouth full as she crammed down bites of a sandwich in sizes that were comical bordering on dangerous. She gave Mary a brief nod of acknowledgment, chewing hastily as she made her way to the other side of the desk. “Word to the wise, if you want to do this job then learn to eat and walk at the same time. It’s the only way you’ll get lunch some days.”

               “I have to say, you seem busier than I remember from passing you in the old facilities.” Ostensibly this should be a safe place to talk, and even if it wasn’t Mary didn’t technically have to fear being discovered anymore. Still, using double-talk when above ground was second nature to her, a nature she saw no reason to shake off just yet.

               “Of course I looked put together down there. That’s when I have to seem calm and centered, the sort of rock that any student would feel comfortable opening up to. The truth of the matter is I’m over-worked in a job that really needs more staff, but that’s my problem, not the kids’. They’ve got enough on their plate; they don’t need to worry about me too. Or you for that matter, assuming you took me up on the meeting because you’re interested in my offer.” Dr. Moran paused, not so much to give Mary time to answer but rather to wolf down the few last bites of her food.

               Mary waited patiently, in a few years she might very well be the one in desperate need of five minutes to beat back hunger, so offering the same courtesy now was the least she could do. Once Dr. Moran had chewed up the last hunk of crust, Mary answered. “I am definitely interested. I thought about what you said, about the hurdles I’ll be facing and the opportunity you presented me with. If I really want to do this job then I don’t think I’ll ever find a better training situation. And if it turns out I can’t hack it, then this will show me that truth sooner so that I can find somewhere else to apply myself.”

               “I think you’ve got what it takes,” Dr. Moran told her. “But I’ve been wrong before. The work is hard, I won’t lie to you about that, and there are days when it seems like you’ve got far more failures than success stories. Every little bit we do matters though, maybe not in big visible ways all at once, however trust me when I say that you can accomplish huge things through small improvements. Don’t let yourself give up too easily is what I’m driving at.”

               “I assure you, that’s the last thing on my mind.” If Mary could make it through years of training, fighting, and dangerous tests when she hadn’t even wanted the prize at the end, she felt reasonably sure she could endure worse for a goal she genuinely desired.

               “Let’s see how you feel after the first round of paperwork.” Dr. Moran reached into her bag and pulled out a thick stack of pages, setting them down on the desk with a muffled thud and sliding them over to Mary.

               It was a daunting pile, even more so as Mary hunched over and noticed the small size of the print.  “I have to read and sign all of this?”

               “All of that? Mary, those are just the non-disclosure and contract forms you have to sign so I can talk to you about the job in real detail. If you actually want to take on the position… well I don’t mind healing a sore hand, which you will be very grateful for once you see that stack.”

               Much as Mary would have liked to take it as a joke, Dr. Moran didn’t look like she was kidding. In fact, she’d pulled out her laptop and appeared to be doing work of her own while Mary stared at the pages. Right, no time to waste. Picking up a pen, Mary looked down at the first page and started to read.

               Time to see what she was signing up for.

*             *             *

               “Sir, we have news.”

               Crispin barely bothered looking up from his desk at the sound of Sherman’s voice. He knew the kind of news that his trusted aid, one of the few resources still remaining, would deliver. More arrests, more former members turning on the Sons of Progress, more signs that their infrastructure was crumbling away beneath them. If anyone besides Sherman knew his whereabouts, Crispin had no doubt they’d have handed him over by now. The Heroes would probably have traded full-immunity, at the very least, to anyone willing to turn over the Sons of Progress’s leader. Between the money trail and the number of turncoats saving their own skin, it was no secret that the Sons of Progress was more or less dead. Now they wanted to hang him in the streets, to show the world what happened to those who attacked a Hero-training campus. He would have to rebuild, perhaps something newer, more dedicated, however first Crispin had to watch the death of his first creation.

               “How many more are lost now, Sherman?”

               “Five of our people. We’ve also received word that none of the East Coast freelance operators are willing to work with us anymore. Apparently being connected to the Sons of Progress brings down too much Hero attention.” Sherman’s report was professional as always, yet Crispin thought he detected a bit of a hurry in his words, like he was rushing to the next part. Strange, usually there wasn’t a next part to hurry to.

               “Is that all?”

               “No, sir. We’ve received a message. Someone made contact through an operative, wanting to pass an offer along to you. It seems they’re willing to help us if we’re open to pooling resources. Assuming they can be taken at face value,” Sherman said.

               “Which they obviously can’t be. We’re at the end of our proverbial rope, there’s little left to do besides shut off the lights and lock the door behind us. All anyone would want is to pillage what few resources we still have and perhaps put you and I to good use. If not a hostile takeover attempt, who else would be desperate enough to align with a group in our position?”

               “According to the message we received… Globe, sir.” Sherman’s voice wavered a bit, and with good reason. In terms of legendary figures, he may as well have announced that the Easter Bunny was offering them aid.

               “Globe? The disgraced Hero who successfully managed that jailbreak a few years back?” Crispin hadn’t expected that. He might be the only other person in the world the Heroes were hunting with quite the same gusto as Crispin and Sherman. A Hero certainly wasn’t the sort that Crispin would prefer to throw in his lot with, but Globe was renowned for the way in which he’d turned his back on the world of capes and masks. If there was anyone who might be reaching out in an effort to give genuine aid, Globe was a strong contender. That didn’t mean Crispin trusted the message, however he wasn’t quite so inclined to reject it out of hand.

                “Send a reply back down the line,” Crispin ordered. “Let him know that we’re interested.”