Jerome Ferrous was a rarity: a retired operative. He looked like a fairly typical, fifty something male: receding hairline, small paunch and a bit of a squint that implied he should be wearing glasses. Jerome also had dark grey, metallic skin and walked with the kind of slow, shuffling gait that would have seemed better suited to someone twice his apparent age.
“I’m not like your other Instructors.” His raspy voice carried through the room with ease. “I remember what it was like. A bunch of strangers telling you about how much damage Empowered can do, how it’s your job to stop them and everybody’s depending on you…” he trailed off.
Isaac found the effect of human eyes in a metal face disturbing. His white teeth and greying hair didn’t make it any better.
“No.” With a visible effort, he pulled his thoughts back to the present. “I’m here to tell you about the price of your job, the one you’ll end up paying.” He raised trembling hands and fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. “Director Shift called you ‘Those who cannot afford to fail,’ right?” He sneered as he spread the shirt wide. “You’re still human. You can’t live up to that. No one can.”
Isaac stared. The former operative’s chest was covered with dozens of shiny patches. Most were long and narrow, but the one in the center, right over his heart, was roughly star shaped and bigger than Isaac’s outspread hand.
“This is part of my price. And yeah, if you’re wondering, those are scars. Any questions?” He pointed as Don raised his hand. “Yeah, you.”
“Are you solid iron? Cause I’ve got a pretty good idea how tough that’d make you, and…”
“Spit it out kid.”
“What happened?” Don asked, simply.
“Anyone ever heard of Razor Wind?” Jerome asked. After a moment of silence, he continued. “Not surprising. He was an Empowered criminal that spent a month or so robbing grocery stores and gas stations. He had a kind of weird telekinesis. All he could do with it was cut things, like he was throwing out these invisible blades.” Absently, he fingered one of the longer scars, running along his collarbone.
“He’d show up, trash the place a bit, grab the money and run. A bunch of people got hurt, but no one got killed and he didn’t take hostages. Not enough to make the news or get a Hunter team sent after him, but it made him a priority for us. I was on a Stationary team in the same city, San Diego, and after a couple weeks we managed to catch up to him.”
Isaac looked around, curious, and saw that the rest of the room was hanging on every word.
“It was me, Sally Swift and our shadow, Mary Vector. We didn’t want to catch anyone in the crossfire if we could help it so we waited for him to come out of the place and jumped him in the street. Sally-” he gave a sigh, it had a strange, whistling quality.
“Sally was basically a low end Speed type, but she could share it with anyone she touched. Basically, she let us all run about as fast as a car. Me and her went in first. I caved in his chest before he even knew we were there. He dropped without a fuss. Job done, right?”
No one was stupid enough to take that up.
“Yeah, we didn’t know he had high end regeneration, too. And those telekinetic blades? He didn’t need to wave his hands or anything, just threw them with his mind. We found out both of those things when he took Sally’s head off, less than a second after I put him down.”
Jerome Ferrous was practically snarling the words, but he kept talking.
“The new girl froze up, but I went for him right away.” He traced the shiny scars as he spoke. “He cut me, well, he cut me a bunch, but I’m pretty tough. Every time I hit him, he went down again and then he got back up. I wasn’t winning, just keeping him busy.” He closed his eyes.
“Mary Vector. I guarantee a few of you’ve heard of her. I never really understood her power. She could… sort of… mess with people’s bodies. Didn’t work on me, but she could make Sally even faster and she could give the bad guy a stroke or a heart attack, if she wanted. She was brand new, right out of training, so I guess I can’t really blame her for freezing. But what she did after that…”
He opened his eyes and clenched his hands.
“She tried to take him out the usual way, but I guess a regenerator doesn’t worry too much about heart attacks. So she focused on the bacteria in his body. Something you may not know, people with enhanced healing don’t usually have any special resistance to disease. They never get sick, but that’s just because their bodies heal the damage as fast as it shows up. Basically, they’re like the perfect carriers.”
Oh, fuck. Isaac hadn’t paid any attention to the Empowered world, but even he knew about Typhoid Mary.
“Mary gave them a boost, sped them up. The whole time I was pounding on him and he was cutting me up, she was using him as a breeding ground. After a few minutes, he started coughing. She’d made something so nasty his body couldn’t keep up with it. That was enough to give me the edge”
Jerome’s voice was quiet, but not so quiet that Isaac couldn’t hear the guilt.
“I pulped the guy and that was that. Mary was smart enough to kill off the germs in his body and I didn’t have to worry about it, but… She didn’t think about the blood. I was covered in it and every drop was full of that damned plague she made.”
He looked out at the class, his voice as hard as his skin.
“Razor Wind never killed anyone, but he was damned careless with his power. The way he was going, it was only a matter of time. We had him down as a Class Four. Mary Vector made a mistake and killed almost two hundred people. I was messed up enough that they had to patch me up, like a busted up car. My body doesn’t work right anymore. Mary was forcibly retired and came damned close to being executed. They put her under some kind of probation, restricts how she can use her power, what kind of job she can have, where she can live… all sorts of stuff. Claimed it was for her own good.”
Jerome Ferrous looked over the training class and said one more thing, bitterness dripping from his voice.
“Welcome to the Citadel.”
Sparring Field (Simulation Area)
Anna could see everything.
Even the hood over her head didn’t make any difference. Well, it was making her nose itch. She reached up to scratch it through the thick cloth. She adjusted her glasses while she was at it.
The starting tone sounded, followed by Coach Achala’s voice.
“You may remove your blindfolds now. There will be a short period before your opponents enter the field. Treat them as rogue Empowered, with a history of violence. Your objective is to contain them and minimize civilian casualties. I suggest you first take the opportunity to familiarize yourself with your surroundings.”
Anna already knew the field, so she spent the time examining her teammates instead.
Samantha Soar: tall, slender, wide set eyes. Her powers were flight and enhanced perception, primarily visual acuity and awareness of her surroundings. The intensity of her power was shocking, especially for something so seemingly simple.
“I’ll scout the area.” she said, vanishing too quick for any eyes but Anna’s to follow.
Bruce’s training had already vastly enhanced Anna’s ability to interpret emotion and motivations. Even without that training, she wouldn’t have had any trouble recognizing Samantha’s newfound confidence, or her burning desire to prove herself.
“Anna, can you tell who we’re up against?” Jenny asked.
Jennifer Awesome: involuntary reality manipulation. Her power wasn’t under her conscious control, instead it operated on some kind of conditional basis that Anna couldn’t quite understand. She was… troubling, on more than one level.
“Drew, Kerry, Michael and Fred.” she answered. They were waiting just outside the massive dome.
Jenny’s power was almost constantly active, but what it altered most often was Jenny herself. Her apparent personality and mannerisms were constantly shifting. Anna was afraid that the girl was far less stable, and far more powerful, than any of her other classmates realized. There was only one other that worried her more.
“We are all familiar with Drew and Keridwyn. I do not know what the other two are capable of.”
Jason Grim: his power was horrifying, both in scope and in nature, but that wasn’t why Anna was scared of him. There was something wrong with his mind, his emotions.
“Michael is a Jordan type. He creates and manipulates forcefields. Individually, they’re low strength but versatile. Fred is a selective Ghost type. Very dangerous in close combat and hard to hurt. He’d probably be near the top of the rankings if he hadn’t gotten unlucky in his first round. He hasn’t fought outside of training since.”
Jason gave a slight nod, a look of determined concentration on his face. It was every bit as fake as all the other expressions she’d seen him wear. She didn’t think it was directly connected to his Empowerment but his feelings were almost nonexistent. Anna hadn’t been nearby, but she’d still seen his reaction to Duncan’s influence. Everyone else within range had been mildly nervous but Jason had been terrified.
He wasn’t evil or malicious, but he had no ability to deal with strong emotion and enough power to kill a city. Anna couldn’t understand why Director Shift hadn’t put him down.
Samantha appeared so suddenly that it was like teleportation. Anna had seen her coming but, if it had been an attack, she wouldn’t have had enough time to respond.
“The field… It’s just incredible.” she said, hovering just above their heads. “There’s, like, sixteen city blocks, four by four. The far half is really heavily populated, all condos and apartments and stuff, but the near side looks kinda like high end retail. It’s got a bunch of jewelry and clothing stores. Oh, and a couple restaurants and a bank.”
“Wait, populated? What do you mean?” Jenny asked.
“Well, the buildings and stuff are all fake. Like, they’re solid stone, kinda looks like the dome material, but there’s no doors or windows, just the openings for them, and everything’s the same color. It’s actually really neat!” she interrupted herself, smiling widely. “But there’s a bunch of Hector’s duplicates walking around everywhere! It’s really freaky because they’re all wearing the same thing. I even looked in some of the apartment windows and there’s a couple of them watching TV and stuff.”
“Whoa.” Jenny said, softly. “I mean, I get it; that’s a great training tool and all, but that’s… How many can he make?”
“There’s no practical limit.” Anna answered. “His power is… impressive.”
“Okay, that means we can’t engage as soon as they come in, not unless they start something. We need to get them over here, where it’s less crowded.”
“Can we just have Samantha spread the word to flee the area?” Jason asked.
The others stared at him for a moment.
“I realize this is a training exercise, but would that not be consistent with real world behavior?”
“Well… yeah. I guess I could do that.” Samantha said.
“Do it, Sammy.” Jenny told her.
She vanished as quickly as she’d arrived.
A moment passed.
“It’s working.” Anna told them. “I don’t know how accurate this is though. None of Hector’s duplicates are arguing, just leaving as soon as she talks to them.”
Jenny shrugged. “I’m fine with that. Fighting Kerry in a city would be a nightmare.”
“It could be worse, at least we are not facing Duncan.” Jason added, “His effect increases with time and I have yet to see him refrain from using it in combat. A sustained fight with his involvement could easily lead to a panic.”
Jenny looked at him. “That’s… actually a good point. How are they possibly expecting to use him as an operative?”
“They’ve started.” Anna said, as their opponents entered the massively oversized dome. “They’re heading straight for the bank, right down the main street.”
“Okay.” Jenny paused for a moment, a look of concentration on her face. “Anna, are they attacking anyone or just walking?”
“Kerry is walking, the others are riding on her. But no,” she shook her head, “no violence so far.”
“If we hurry, we can beat them there, get everyone out and get ready to fight them inside. Kerry will have to use a smaller form if she wants to rob the place.”
They moved out as quickly as they could. For the first time, Anna found herself grateful for Coach Achala’s insane level of physical training.
Evacuating the simulated bank was easier than Anna had expected. Just as with Samantha’s efforts, Hector’s duplicates left the area at a run as soon as they were told about the incoming “rogue Empowered.”
Anna selected a hiding spot in the bank’s lobby and readied her weapons. To all appearances, Jason was standing in the center of the room, examining the potted plants and the bushes across the street. She could tell that all of the plants in question were now dead, including the grass. The act left him holding hundreds of lives.
“Wait-” Jenny said, from her post by the vault door, “Why aren’t we dead?”
“Explain.” came Jason’s monotone reply.
Anna understood at the same moment that Jenny began her reply. Why hadn’t she seen it sooner?
“Even without that Richards made knife, Drew could drop all three of us in a second or two. How come he hasn’t?”
There was an immense crashing noise as great green hands, tipped with black claws, ripped through the bank’s front wall.
“They’re here!” Anna shouted, too late. How had she not noticed they were that close?
“Something’s wrong.” Jenny said.
And then, ignoring Anna and Jason both, the long, wingless green dragon gave a cry and lunged for her.
Jason did not kill the dragon. Instructor Bruce had given him a list of situations under which he could act against the other trainees without restraint. Killing Keridwyn’s dragon form was allowed. For some reason, it did not feel like the appropriate action just now.
Instead, he attacked the nearest of the figures which had followed in the dragon’s wake. He trusted Jenny to handle Keridwyn. She’d already beaten her once and, given what he knew of her power, should be capable of handling her again.
His target was a humanoid figure, made up of semi-translucent orange and gold blocks with a dark shape at its center. Michael, he assumed. Jason held a great many lives at the moment, so had little to fear. However, the majority of them were plants. His strength was little more than an ordinary man’s.
Jason struck at Michael in the same manner he had practiced under Coach Achala’s guidance. He did not fully understand how the force field manipulator’s power worked, but the blocky covering proved sufficient to keep his blows at the throat and joints from having any visible effect. Luckily, his opponent seemed unusually clumsy. Jason avoided his return attacks with ease.
“WHERE’S YOUR ARROW NOW, JENNY?” he heard the dragon bellow. The question was followed by a series of impacts, presumably the dragon destroying chunks of wall or flooring as Jenny avoided its attacks.
Michael took advantage of his momentary distraction, punching him in the center of his chest. Jason felt an instant’s flash of pain over his sternum, before a life was expended to repair the damage. Staggering back, Jason took a moment to study the fight.
Drew had attacked Anna, moving with such speed that Jason could not follow the pattern of his strikes. She bled from several light cuts on her arm, but defended herself with remarkable skill.
Keridwyn’s current body was approximately thirty feet long, low to the ground and coiling about like a serpent. It had green scales and a clump of thick black hair at the tip of its tail, as well as a similar mane around its head. There was no fire but she lashed out with quick swipes of her hand-like claws, interspersed with sudden lunges of her jaws.
“It’s not Drew!” Anna shouted.
Jason turned to face her, just in time to see Drew cock his left arm at an odd angle. He held it in place for a moment, then… Jason was not sure what happened next.
He heard a noise, like the cracking of a whip but much louder. There was a sharp impact across his neck and the side of his face, hard enough to at least break his neck and possibly crush his skull. That did not concern him, since it cost him only a single life to fix. The countless tiny pin pricks that covered that same area were a different matter.
Each wound, tiny though they were, cost him the same resource as a broken neck. He didn’t have enough and he couldn’t stop himself. At a stroke, every life in his store was ripped away.
“No.” he said, his voice slurring.
Jason heard a series of rapid gunshots from the street and the golden fields around Michael vanished.
He couldn’t move. Why couldn’t he move!? His body contorted as he spasmed.
“What- what’s happening?” he tried to say.
The obscuring force fields gone, a body collapsed to the floor. No, not a body. Though its arms and legs were obviously broken in multiple areas, Jason could tell it still lived. He recognized it, Hector, not Michael. Some sort of trick. Beyond him, Drew’s arms were stretched out and distorted, more like tentacles than human limbs. Anna was on the grounding, twitching. Drew’s skin was chalk pale and his face melted into a featureless… Jason didn’t know what.
Jason was frightened, almost as badly as under Duncan’s influence. At least this time he knew the reason, understood it.
He could hear a series of muffled explosions from the back of the bank and the dragon cried out again, loud and shrill. Jason recognized the pain and fear in it. What should he do?
Jason was badly injured. He could feel the beads of blood on his skin, the tiny wounds that weren’t healing. There was some kind of poison in his bloodstream. His allies were occupied, disabled or absent. This was only a training exercise… but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been without the shield of at least a few stolen lives.
He could be hurt, maybe even killed.
Jason’s ongoing contortions brought Hector into the center of his field of view.
Jenny was lost in the music. Its grip was getting stronger all the time.
She leapt straight up, legs spread wide, and planted both hands on the top of Kerry’s head. She used the extra height that bought her to roll forward, twisting as she went. Jenny was able to get a grip on one of the stubby spines that ran down the center of Kerry’s back.
Even as she tried to figure out how she’d done that, she fished in one of the pouches on her belt. The movements didn’t seem to track. She retrieved one of her slap charges. It was roughly the size and shape of a sponge, one side red and the other blue. Jenny released her grip and slapped the charge against Kerry’s neck as she fell. The red half contained a quick acting adhesive, enough to hold the device in place for a few seconds.
As she landed on her feet, knees flexing and arms outspread, Jenny heard the shaped charge go off. Kerry screamed in pain. Her flailing limbs and tail crashed into furniture and shattered the floor. Jenny wanted to stop, run back into the vault and hide, but the music wouldn’t let her. Its tempo was building, pushing her forward.
She sprinted towards her fallen teammates, making no attempt to avoid Kerry’s oncoming tail. Instead of crushing her head, it vanished as the dragon died. For a moment, she wanted to break down and whimper, then she was caught up in the music and everything was okay.
Sammy steadied her light weight rifle, taking a moment to line up her shot. She liked the pistols better, but they weren’t accurate past ninety two feet, close enough to let him see her. Instructor Bruce said they had a lot of penetrating power but she didn’t know if they’d be able to get through Michael’s forcefields. Luckily, as long as Michael didn’t know she was there, Sammy wouldn’t have to find out. She squeezed the trigger on her rifle, dropping the gun as soon as she heard the shot.
The Jordan type’s knee shattered and Sammy appeared, hovering above him. She held two pistols, one pointed at each of his eyes.
“Bang, you’re dead.” she said, doing her best not to squeal with joy.
“Aaah!” he screamed, clutching at his leg. “Motherfucker, that hurts!”
“You’re dead Michael, drop the shields or I’ll have to shoot the other one.” Wow, she sounded totally badass.
“They’re down.” he gasped out.
Satisfied, Sammy shot straight up, stopping near the top of the dome, and took a second to scan the area. All the Hectors in sight were either taking cover or moving towards one of the dome’s exits. This thing really was huge. How did it stay up? It didn’t seem like stone should be strong enough to support a dome with a radius of thirteen thousand one hundred and ninety two feet.
“Woops,” she muttered to herself, “can’t get distracted like that, not anymore.”
She didn’t see Fred or Kerry, thank God, she really didn’t wanna have to fight her. Just flying had turned out to be more effective than she’d ever dreamed… but still, dragon. Anna was down and so was Jason; she could see a Hector clone lying between them. Jenny was running towards Kelly so-
“Wait, Kelly? What the-?”
Not stopping to think, she pointed her left pistol, squeezed, then rushed forward as quickly as she could.
The tentacle whip worked perfectly, though Kelly was still having trouble getting her transformed arms to do anything else. She switched back to her regular form, well, her regular form plus a few of the upgrades she’d been working on with Instructor Bruce.
The paralytic drug he’d had her store seemed to be working on Anna. Good thing, too, Kelly had been shocked at how much of a fight the other girl had put up. Everyone said she was only near the top of the rankings because of a fluke but… Wow, that had been really good for someone without physical powers. She felt pretty bad about Jason though. He seemed to be… kinda weak, like Sammy, but without all the scouting and stuff that flying would let her do.
Her gaze fell on Hector. His duplicate? Whatever. Fred had come up with a really good plan but she wasn’t… comfortable with it. Especially the part where she’d pretended to be someone else. It made sense, give the other guys the wrong idea about who they were up against, but she hated prete-
Hector’s head exploded and she went blind. She staggered forward, her hands on her face. She was blind. Her eyes were destroyed. She tried to fix them but there was something stuck in them. Kelly tried to absorb it but it didn’t work. It felt like… slivers of bone? Why couldn’t she-
She heard a gunshot and felt an impact to the side of her head.
“What?” Kelly said.
“Give up Kelly, I don’t wanna hurt you.” someone said. Sammy?
She tried to smile. “Hey it’s fine, just training, right?”
Sammy opened fire. Kelly could feel the bullets hit her chest and bounce. Her ribs were fused into segmented plates and basically made of diamond now. It’d take a lot more than bullets to stop her. But… she’d heard the shots and had a rough idea where Sammy was hovering.
Kelly swung at her, changing her arm to the tentacle shape in mid-arc. She felt some kind of impact in the middle of her back, not hard but just enough to put her off balance. She stumbled and missed. What was that? It felt like there was something stuck to her back. She reached back with the arm that still looked human but couldn’t quite get to it.
Kelly couldn’t see it, but Sammy winced as whatever it was that Jenny had just hit Kelly with exploded. Bits of her friend were scattered everywhere. It left enough of a ringing in her ears that it took her a moment to realize the tone had sounded. The match was over.
Hector was present for the post exercise discussion, despite not having been involved in the fight. At least, he hadn’t been one of the combatants, just a victim. That was Operative Richards’ punishment, the compromise that had let Hector stay at the Citadel. He got to be a ‘training assistant.’ She stumbled and nearly fell. Hector caught his mother, supporting her with his bodies. That meant he participated, in some fashion, with just about every training exercise or practice session that involved one of his classmates. Usually he was a test subject, sometimes a stand in for innocent bystanders. Bruce had wanted to make that last one a permanent assignment. Good thing Director Melody had overruled him.
It was a short walk to the bathroom, but one she could rarely make on her own. Oddly, she was less reluctant to use the bedpan on the good days.
“Overall, you did well. I can see clear improvement in all of your fighting capabilities.” Coach Achala addressed the day’s ‘operatives.’
Tomorrow, they’d swap roles and be the criminals. Teams would be assigned at the last minute, supposedly at random.
“Michael was able to steal from the jewelry story while your group was occupied at the bank. However, simple theft is far less important than loss of human life. You were right to prioritize the bank and its greater chance for civilian deaths.” Coach Achala smiled, radiating warmth and approval.
He helped his mother get back into bed, trying not to notice the trembling in her limbs. She lay down and he pulled the blankets up to her chest.
“That was Jenny’s call.” Samantha volunteered. “She said we should hit them there, cause otherwise Kerry would try to help Michael and that would be, well, that’d go really bad.”
Achala nodded. “You’re probably correct. Well done Trainee Awesome.”
She blushed and mumbled a thank you. Hector thought it was sweet. As effective a fighter as she was, as firm and decisive as she’d been on the battlefield, she was still humble and a little shy. Jenny really was pretty Awe-
“That’s it!” He couldn’t restrain the exclamation.
Coach Achala and the rest of the group turned to face him.
Hector watched her sleep. She was so thin, always hurting and never truly happy.
“Sorry,” he said, “couldn’t help myself. I just figured out Jenny’s power and…”
He’d been speaking in stereo. The other two hims, the ones made as part of the match, turned and headed back to the oversized dome.
Doctors couldn’t do anything to counteract the effects of Chemo’s power. Healers couldn’t fix her, couldn’t even give her a moment of genuine respite.
“Y’know, I appreciate you getting all excited over it…” Jenny grinned, “But I told everyone my power on the first day.”
He smiled back. “You’re Awesome, yeah. I remember. I just figured out what that actually meant. You have some kind of idea about what you need to do to impress everyone around you, sort of like a limited precog. Is that right?”
She nodded. “Pretty much.”
“Cool.” It wasn’t as good as a full Wayne type, but straight precogs almost never joined the Citadel.
The critique resumed. “Samantha, you performed well, for the most part. I am pleased to see you are no longer so hesitant to engage.”
She beamed, thrilled by the unaccustomed praise.
“But you did make one mistake. You shot a bystander.”
Hector looked at the syringe in his hand. It held a single dose of the painkiller that let her sleep, sometimes.
Her smile left as quickly as it’d come.
“You should have realized that Kelly was well outside of the effective range of your pistol. You did much better during your challenge matches last weekend. No stray shots, even your ricochets were under control.”
“I’m sorry sir. I know I shouldn’t have tried for that shot, it’s just… I saw two of my team were down and…”
“I understand. Under almost any circumstance, your teammates come first. Please consider though, that round could just as easily have hit Anna or Jason.” Achalla told her.
“Yes sir. I… I won’t make that mistake again.”
Hector saw Anna frown, wondered what was bothering her.
“Jason,” Achalla shifted his attention, “your hand to hand skill is improving. However, you are still underutilizing your ability. Keridwyn’s dragon form-”
“Oh come on!” Jenny interrupted. “That’s not fair. He’s just a low end Strong type with some regeneration. You can’t possibly blame one of the weakest fighters in our class for not stepping in front of Kerry!”
He loved his mother but he didn’t want her to suffer. Hector didn’t know what to do.
Achala seemed taken aback, a rare break in his composure. Hector appreciated that Jenny was standing up for his friend, especially after their near disaster the other day, but he had to repress a smile at the idea that she thought he hadn’t acted because he was too weak.
“Jennifer, I appreciate your support but it is not necessary.” Jason said in his usual, perfectly polite tone. “I believe I know the general thrust of your criticism, Coach Achalla, and the point is well taken. Next time, I shall be better prepared to act.”
Coach didn’t answer at first, just pursed his lips in thought. “Very well. Also, please keep in mind that you won’t be able to conceal the exact nature of your abilities forever. Be careful that you don’t let others, or yourself, come to harm in the attempt.”
“Yes sir.” Jason answered.
Sammy and Jenny looked a little confused, but Hector could tell Anna had followed both layers of the conversation. Not surprising, she could identify the general nature of an Empowered’s abilities at a glance.
Hm, interesting point. Why hadn’t she realized Kelly had been imitating Drew on sight? It should have been obvious to her long before the fight started.
Jenny laughed at something Sammy was saying and Hector completely lost the train of thought.
Hector still held the syringe. If he added any more, the overdose would mean she never woke up.
Billy leaned over the podium, examining the training class he’d be speaking to today. A few of their lights were pretty bright. The big negro-
He shook his head to break that train of thought, old habits.
One of them was even brighter than his own.
“Okay guys, this lecture’s going to be a little different. I’m sure you all saw the title: Citadel History.” He didn’t try to hide his smile. “Well, that’s me. What do you want to know? Don’t be shy. Just shout ’em out.”
There was a moment of quiet. At least a few kids probably recognized him. He’d found that those were usually the ones too nervous to ask anything, at first. As for the rest, their first question was usually…
“Um, who are you?” It was a short girl, brown hair and glasses, almost bouncing in her chair with nervous energy. Her light was a little brighter than average… but there was something… something off about it.
Giving a mental shrug, he answered. “My name is William R. Power. I’m the Citadel’s senior Operative, literally.”
The girl’s jaw slowly dropped. “You’re… you’re really…?”
“Yep. I know, I don’t look much like the way you’d expect.” He was short, a little on the thin side and tended to slouch, just a bit. “But that’s me. Anything more before we give someone else a turn?”
“Did you… uh, did you really fight Adam Selene on the Moon?” she asked.
He couldn’t help laughing first, but he answered the question seriously. “No. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as sentient supercomputers or space travel. Though some Richards type could prove me wrong about the first part any day now.”
She looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s just… there was this cartoon show when I was a kid…”
“I’ll tell you a secret; I was a huge fan.” He grinned. “I never could figure out why they drew me with all those muscles and a spit curl though.” Billy had kept his hair short since his time in the army and whatever it was that made him so strong had nothing to do with muscles.
“I know no one’s managed to get a manmade object out of the atmosphere, but what about you?”
This time it was a Hispanic kid. For a second, Billy thought he had a brother sitting next to him. The two were practically identical. A closer look told the real story, they shared the same light. He must be some kind of duplicator. That new Richards type, Bruce, probably had him keeping an extra out at all times, practicing coordination or something. The guy came up with some weird ideas but they usually worked out pretty well.
“You’re invulnerable and you can fly. I guess you might need to carry oxygen tanks or something, but couldn’t you make it into space? Or someone else, teleporters, flyers, it just seems like there’s a lot of Empowered that could do it with the right support.”
“That’s…” Billy was momentarily startled. “That’s true, we should be able to. But we can’t. I was one of the handful that tried, back in the sixties. I know there’s a version of this in the textbooks these days, but I doubt it has the whole story.” He took a second to gather his thoughts. One of the worst parts of living as long as he had was that you got plenty of opportunity to gather bad memories. This wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list but it hadn’t been pleasant.
“President Kennedy got elected in nineteen sixty and one of his earliest moves was to start the country’s first space program. Things… well, the country was in a bad way at the time. The government thought we needed something to rally behind, and space travel was it.” He gave a sigh. This wasn’t a story he could grin through.
“The first probe, Explorer, just vanished. No one could figure out why. The next move was to send up a group of Empowered, me and ten others. They called us the Apollo group. We had these special suits, airtight, shielded, state of the art communications… It was incredible. We headed up and…”
No one said a word. This wasn’t the kind of story you interrupted.
“It went poorly. Everyone blacked out at about the same height the Explorer vanished. I came to just before impact… most of the others died when they hit the ground. I just hope they never woke up. No one else made it. There’ve been isolated attempts, with vehicles and Empowered… but it always ends the same. Nothing’s ever made it and only the toughest even survive.”
The kid’s face was grave and a little pale, despite his skin’s color. “Should… should you be telling us this?”
He gave a little smile. “Yeah. This is like a lot of things in the Citadel. It’s not an official secret, but it’s not something to spread around. One of the things they look for in your personality profiles is discretion. You don’t end up an operative if you’re in the habit of putting everything in your life up on Mybook.”
“Did you really fight the Lords of Time and stop an invasion from the Mirror Universe? Or- is that stuff like the space travel, just TV?”
It was that same girl. She was kind of cute and the rest of the trainees were all giggling. Apparently she was popular, but he was starting to get a little irritated.
“Yes and no. The time travel episode was pure fiction, same as that Chrono Trek show, but the Mirror Universe was based on an actual incident. Alternate dimensions have never been verified but there was a man whose power created evil duplicates of popular Empowered, complete with goatees. Even the women.” He gave a chuckle. “Intervention Prime got called in before they realized the catch. All the duplicates were utterly incompetent. The fight was over in a couple minutes.”
“What happened to the guy? Did you have to kill him to protect everyone else or something?” the girl asked.
“Nope. The duplication was involuntary. Once we had the situation under control, he was able to hold off on making new ones while we teleported him to a US embassy in England. As soon as he set foot on British soil, the Monarch’s power took hold and he wasn’t a threat.” Before she could ask another question he moved on to the other half of his answer.
“As far as the time travel thing… that’s a bit of a mixed bag. There’s only ever been one case of actual time travel. It’s a little ugly but…” He looked over the expectant faces and went on. “A child by the name of James Ray was murdered in nineteen thirty two. Witnesses said his killer vanished in a flash of strange blue light.”
“That’s time travel?” the girl interrupted.
“Well, he left the murder weapon behind, complete with fingerprints. At the time, it just went down as a random Empowered event, but…” He gave her a serious look. “The full details on this are classified, but I think this much is safe to tell you. Those same fingerprints were later found to belong to an individual born in nineteen fifty seven. He’s under observation but has yet to demonstrate any abilities. We think that the killer was a version of him from a timeline that no longer exists.”
“Whoa.” she said. “That’s pretty awesome.”
He shrugged. “I like the more common examples better.”
“What-” she started, but he cut her off.
“Healers. The vast majority of them manipulate time. They aren’t genuinely healing your bodies so much as… resetting them, I suppose.”
“So why do we remember the injury then?” she asked.
He gave a shrug. “That’s one of the many things we don’t understand about Empowered. Add it to the list, along with why most of them can’t reattach missing limbs or ‘heal’ the dead. There’s no reason the same process shouldn’t work there.” He paused a moment, deciding whether he should elaborate.
“Powers… well, they can be pretty strange.” He let the laughter die down before going on. “Pretty much anything you say about them comes with an asterisk, but there’s a few general rules. Healers can’t do much for an injury after it’s been there for an hour or so. No defense, or offense, is invincible. There’s always something that can shut it down.”
“Even yours? You’re the strongest guy in the Citadel, everyone knows that.” Another girl, this one with red hair and a boy’s haircut. Her light wasn’t as bright as the black man’s, but it was enough to let him know she was near the top of the scale.
“Even me.” he said, giving her a serious nod. “Let’s just say… my reputation is exaggerated. Who’re the strongest ones in your class? Just flat out strength, I mean.”
The class split, some looking to the redhead and others to the- to the big guy.
Billy gave him a nod, “What do you do?”
He stirred before answering, “Forcefield. It protects me and enhances my strength.” Billy had to make an effort not to think of his tone as uppity.
“And you?” he asked the girl.
“I turn into a dragon.” Her grin was downright predatory.
“Nice.” He gave an appreciative whistle. “Now, care to guess what I do?” He fought to keep his grin from turning into a smirk.
She looked a little puzzled. “You’re just a flying Strong type, aren’t you? I mean, the strongest… but-”
“Nope. Technically, I’m a Parker type.”
She looked more than just a little puzzled now.
“That means I have a bunch of different powers that add up to make me way more effective than I should be. Pretty much a living version of ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts.'” Billy said. “I’ve got strength, toughness, flight, regeneration and a touch of Null and Perception type abilities.”
“Wow.” she said softly. He could see similar reactions throughout the crowd.
“What that means is that I can use the flight to brace myself and hit harder. Between the toughness and nullification, I’m damned hard to hurt. The regeneration is actually my most intense power. Even if something gets through the rest, I can recover fast enough to get back in the fight.” He didn’t like bragging, but the kids needed to know what the top of the ladder looked like. “But there’s still a few folks that could swat me the same as anyone. I can’t fly in British skies and if I tried to shake Winter’s hand I’d end up as dead as anyone else.”
“Regeneration. That means… you really are old enough, you fought in the First War?” The first girl again. What was it about her? The way her light, her power, was pulsing… it seemed so familiar…
He nodded. “That’s right. Most Strong types, especially men, trigger through frustration. Trying to lift something too heavy, run a little too far, stuff like that. The army gets a lot of its special forces from recruits who pop in boot camp. Me…” he forced a grin, despite the memory, “I triggered through sheer terror, huddled in a trench we’d dug in the French countryside.”
“So, did you fight the Tyrant, when he took over?”
“No. He didn’t pop up until twenty one, after we’d all gone home. Besides, he’s more than strong enough to get through my null and the rest of it doesn’t do me any good against mind control.”
“Has that ever happened?” she asked. If it wasn’t something silly, it was a question that brought up bad memories. That girl was really starting to get on his nerves, strange light and all.
“Just once.” he answered, as curtly as he could manage without being rude.
“How did they stop you? Him? I…” she trailed off as he looked at her. Maybe he should be trying harder to keep the irritation out of his gaze.
“Like I said, my reputation is a tad exaggerated. As far as a straight fight goes, there’s at least one operative stronger and one who’s…” he couldn’t help the grin, “one who’s exactly the same.” He could see the question coming so he hurried on. “My brother has the exact same powers and abilities as me. The other, well, details on him actually are a secret. Sorry.”
He checked his watch. Communicator, he meant. Billy couldn’t get used to how quick some things changed.
“Just one more, I think.” He was hoping someone else would be quicker but it was that irritating little-
“What was your worst fight? If it wasn’t the mind control thing, that is.”
And just like that, he knew who that strange power reminded him of. It wasn’t the same but it was too close for comfort.
“Monster.” he whispered.
“Hector, are you home?” Isaac called as he entered, holding the door for Jason. “There’s something I need to run by you.”
“Sure,” Hector answered, “what’s up?” He stood up from his seat, leaving another him behind to continue his training exercise.
Isaac gave Jason a friendly nod, then entered the kitchen. He heard the boy’s footsteps on the stairs behind him. He stopped cold when he saw what Hector had been doing, losing control of his forcefield for the first time that day.
“What?” Hector asked.
“You’re working a puzzle.”
“Yeah? What’s wrong with that?”
Isaac needed a moment before answering. It didn’t seem like it needed to be said, but…
“I am.” Hector sounded like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
“You’re doing a three hundred piece puzzle, blindfolded, while another you watches.”
Hector’s overly controlled expression collapsed into a grin, “Heh. Bruce came up with it. He wanted me to get better at integrating sense information from multiple bodies.”
“That’s… I’m not sure, either very weird or very cool.” Isaac said.
Hector just smiled. “So what’d you want to ask me?”
“Um… would you mind if we went into the other room? This needs to be private and…” he trailed off, unable to explain why extra versions of Hector being around made him feel like he was being eavesdropped on.
Hector gave a shrug and led him through the kitchen and into one of his bedrooms.
Isaac took a moment to look around. It was the first time he’d seen it. Assuming the room had been furnished, the same as the rest of them, Hector had made some changes. There were two long folding picnic tables along opposite walls, covered with computers and reference books. A third wall held a couple of bookshelves, loaded with more books. It looked like a mixture of more reference works and old sci-fi stuff.
He said the only thing he could. “Wow.”
“Thanks.” Hector grinned.
It wasn’t what he’d meant to ask, but he had to know. “How do you afford all this? And what could you possibly be doing with it all?”
Hector slid a folding chair out for Isaac and took a seat in another. “I used to be a bit more spread out, but… that had a few issues. I’ve spent the last few weeks consolidating.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve been taking a few college courses.”
Isaac nodded. “And some skill training here at the Hub.”
“Right. Well, I used to pay for everything by working at restaurants. Usually as a cook or bartender. I basically got fired from one of those jobs and it got me thinking. I knew there had to be a better fit for what I could do.” He gave a sheepish grin. “I’m just a little embarrassed that it took me so long.”
Isaac thought over the possibilities. Hector had a weird blend of multitasking and focus down to an art. With that he could learn most any basic job pretty quickly, but he’d need something that let him add or drop hours at will… maybe a call center or…
“Let me guess, you opened your own temp agency?”
Hector’s grin was rueful this time. “No, but that would have been a good one. Data entry.”
“Really.” Isaac felt a little disappointed. “That seems… kind of pedestrian? Maybe you undershot by a bit?”
“It’s perfect! I do everything online, so there’s no issue with Empowered discrimination, and they pay by performance not the hour. That means that if my savings start to drop down, I can just make a few more of me and work in shifts. Besides, at this point I really just need it to cover my mom’s care and the taxes on her place.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, home and here are my only full time residences. I just use the Gate Room to commute to all my other spots.”
“Bruce has got me… I guess interning is the best way to put it. At least one of me is always present at most of the major Citadel offices in the country now.”
“What’s he got you doing?”
“Mostly just learning the system and meeting people at this point. He wants me to go through training for the Analysis section after Operative training is done.”
Isaac thought about it for a moment. “Because of your ability to integrate information? Makes sense. Be a shame to lose you though. I heard your fight against Coach Achalla was pretty impressive.”
“Why do you think I’d have to quit the field side?” Hector asked.
“Oh… woops.” Isaac shook his head. “I know I should be used to that by now, especially given what we’ve been talking about, but sometimes… it’s just the scale, you know? How do you keep it all straight?”
Hector gave a shrug. “I know information overload is the biggest problem for most duplicators, but it’s easy for me to manage. During my registration exam, the testers thought it was because the extras I make are real. Most of the others are just, sort of like mannequins. They end up having to run half a dozen bodies with one brain but I can keep a one to one ratio.”
“Makes sense, I guess. As much as anything dealing with powers does. Just how much are you doing right now?”
Hector took a moment to think it over. “Not a lot right now. Mostly just studying. I’m enrolled in almost every introductory level course UCLA offers.”
“Almost?” Isaac interrupted.
“Feh. I’ve got no use for the liberal arts classes. I just want the practical ones.”
Isaac didn’t say anything, but it made sense to him. He’d never cared for them either.
“I’ve got a couple martial arts classes later tonight. Bruce had my earlier requests delayed because he wanted to help me pick some specific ones. He was afraid that conflicting reflex responses might trip me up. There’s still a dozen or so of me out at the Sparring Field, helping some of the other trainees practice with their powers.”
“That’s not much?”
“Oh! And I’m learning to…” Hector mumbled something. It almost sounded like ‘dodge bullets.’
“Well,” his voice lowered, “just my mom. There’s always at least one of me with her. She’s… she’s been getting worse lately. I’m… I don’t know what to do.”
Isaac felt a mild burning in his forehead. “All the resources the Citadel has, the Healers and the Richards types, and they can’t help her?”
Hector slowly sank into his chair, “It’s not that simple. It never is with weird Empowered like Chemo. Conventional medicine is pretty much useless and Healers are no good for anything chronic. I’ve… well, I’ve spent a lot time looking into this. There’ve only ever been three Healers that could directly affect diseases, much less that living chemical crap Chemo made.”
Isaac’s heart went out to him. “What about Mary Vector? I don’t know if she counts as a Healer, but it sounded like her power could’ve helped.”
Hector gave a disgusted snort. “She’s the third. That’s why she went with Vector, instead of something like Flux. But she’s considered a potential Class Two threat, the Citadel’s not about to give me any help bringing her out of ‘retirement.'” He shook his head and Isaac could see tears in his eyes.
“The worst part is, I managed to track down her original name, Reed, but I can’t trace her after she entered operative training.”
Isaac’s jaw dropped. “Hector… I…” He took a breath. “You know how Empowered parents tend to have children with similar abilities? Jason… Jason’s got some kind of regeneration, right?”
“Yeah…?” Hector drew out the word, obviously unsure where Isaac was going.
“Hector, his last name was Reed. Do you think-?”
He didn’t bother finishing the sentence. Hector had already rushed out of the room. Isaac could hear a crashing sound from the kitchen, followed by a pounding on the stairway.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to talk to the Director without his advice.” Isaac mused to himself. He couldn’t find it in his heart to regret that.
“Show him in.” Melody told her assistant, not bothering to look up. She could be anywhere in the city in under a minute. Five minutes and Gatekeeper’s help could put her anywhere in the country. Despite that, Melody always wound up in the same spot, sitting at her desk and staring at a stack of papers.
“Thank you for seeing me, Director.” the large black man said.
“I’d say it was my pleasure, but I’m not fond of empty courtesies. Why did you request this meeting, Trainee Isaac?”
He took a seat and frowned. It looked more like concentration than irritation. Good, whatever had brought him here was probably something important then.
“It’s about one of my classmates… I don’t really know how else to put this, but I don’t think he should be in the program.”
Again? This was the third student to complain about the Grim boy. She’d have liked to brush off their complaints, but she already had more than enough reason to tread lightly with him.
“Well, there’s a couple of reasons ma’am. His personality is confrontational and disruptive. The team exercise we had today was a fiasco, just because he was present. I can’t imagine he’d do any better in the field.”
Well, this seemed like a more coherent complaint than the Insight girl’s.
“His power… don’t get me wrong, he’s strong. In some ways, he might be one of the strongest in our class. But that only makes it worse. He’s strong enough that he doesn’t feel like he needs anyone’s help and he doesn’t take anyone as a serious threat. Duncan-”
“Wait, this is about the Nightmare?” she interrupted.
“Duncan Nightmare, yes ma’am.” he seemed taken aback.
Well, that put a very different spin on things. Back on more comfortable ground, she made a beckoning gesture. “Go on.”
“His power set includes a fear aura, not strong at first but it builds up with time, and he’s either unable or unwilling to exclude anyone in his range when it’s on. Earlier, well he basically started a riot. Most of the civilians, the stand-ins I mean, most of the ones we lost were trampled to death trying to get away from him. It also interfered with the rest of us. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my field up if it wasn’t for Instructor Bruce’s training.”
She considered what he’d said before answering.
“Is there anything else?”
“Well, this isn’t directly related to Duncan, but I think it might tie in. Our class started out with sixty four recruits. Now we’re down to just over forty. I can’t believe that that kind of waste is acceptable to you. A lot of them quit, not because they weren’t strong enough, but because they were pushed too hard and too fast. There must be something more effective than this sink or swim approach the Citadel uses, even a few weeks to acclimate might make a difference.”
She sighed. The man had a good point, based on what he knew. Better yet, he seemed to be motivated by the good of the Citadel rather than simple distaste.
“Isaac, before I say anything else, I want to let you know that we value initiative. There’re very few traits more important in an operative.”
She waited for his nod before going on.
“But I’m afraid I can’t give you a good explanation. The selection criteria for your class, and certain aspects of its training curriculum, are… unusual. I can’t explain why that had to be the case. However, I will tell you that the majority of training classes have far lower dropout rates.”
He grimaced but let her continue.
“Additionally, the majority of those who drop their training either return at a later date or find another way to be useful to society. There’s not a city in the country that doesn’t have a former trainee in its fire department, police station or something similar. Helping the ones who won’t fit find a better path is standard practice.” she said.
“That’s not exactly satisfying, Director.”
“No, I don’t imagine it is. Please remember, you’re a trainee. We extend a great deal of trust to our future operatives but there is information that you cannot be allowed to have. Things that… well, things that would go poorly for everyone if more people were aware.”
He sighed. “Fine. I can’t say I’m happy about this, but you heard me out. That’s something, I suppose.” The large man stood up, preparing to leave.
“One thing more, Isaac. Your classmates, how do they react to Duncan’s behavior outside of training?”
“Most of them can’t stand him. As far as I know, there’s not more than a handful of us that he hasn’t antagonized at some point.”
She gave a slight smile. “I would suggest you pay a bit more attention to the details of their reactions, Isaac. You have a bright future with the Citadel and I’d hate to think you started out with a poor opinion of our competence.”
He seemed to consider it. “I’ll do that ma’am.”
“Thank you. Oh, and please remember, discretion is another valuable trait in an operative. I would be… displeased if anything we’ve spoken of, or anything you learn as a result of this conversation, became common knowledge in your class.”