Sparring Field (Simulation Area)
Kelly’s body was a work in progress. He’d mastered the most basic structural changes Instructor Bruce had recommended. His bones were reinforced with diamond and his skin was laced with patches of carbon nanofiber. Vital organs were protected by a bone sheathe and he was getting better at making repairs on the fly. The only thing that could put him down and keep him down was a strong enough blow to the skull. He still reset to one of his social forms when he was knocked out. Bruce had designed a skull configuration that should help with that, but it was too complex for Kelly to reliably manage in the field.
“Wow. No offense man, but you are creepy as fuck.” Operative Glory said.
Kelly cocked his head to the side. “How could I possibly not be offended by that?”
“Sorry.” She gave a shrug. “Aren’t you a shapeshifter? I thought that might be what you were going for.”
“No, it’s all functional. I’ve been working off suggestions from Instructor Bruce-”
“Operative Richards? Shit, no wonder you look so… buggy, I guess.”
Kelly grimaced and Glory’s eyes widened as she took a step back.
“Sorry man, I’ll try to keep it down. It’s just, the guy has kind of a reputation. He sees everything in terms of combat, doesn’t get the idea of peaceful resolution. Just… just try and keep it in mind. There’s more to this job than how hard you can hit.”
Kelly nodded. “I’ll do that.”
“Well, guess it’s time to get started.” She handed him a little device. It looked kind of like a hearing aid. “This is your field communicator…” Glory’s brow furrowed, “um, it goes in your ear but…”
He didn’t have ears at the moment, just little holes with a protective flap of pale white skin. The color was a side effect of its increased calcium. It made his skin a little less flexible, but much more resistant to punctures.
“I think I can manage.” Kelly said, holding the communicator in place while he reshaped his ear canal.
Glory’s face fell as she watched but she turned away without saying anything. When he was done, she turned back and told him, “Just tap it once to activate.”
Kelly used one of the flexible, thickened tentacles that were serving as fingers on his oversized hands to do as he’d been told.
“Protean, this is Hector Hive speaking for Analysis. Please confirm.”
Kelly blinked. “Wha- I mean, yes. This is Protean. Confirmed.” They’d had a class on communication protocol, but for some reason Kelly couldn’t seem to remember anything.
“Protean, we have a situation in your area, probable Class Four, can you respond?”
He looked to Glory, unsure what he should say.
“Don’t look at me Protean.” She shrugged, again. “I’m not here unless something goes badly wrong.”
He shook himself and took a deep breath. “Hive, I’ll take it. What’s the location?” Even as Hector gave him directions, Kelly switched over to his flight form. He had to make a special effort to keep the new communicator in place.
Kelly took to the sky, a little put off by the lack of air currents inside the oversized dome. There was a flash of light from behind and below him, presumably Operative Glory. Hector gave him a brief summary of the situation he was heading for.
“It’s a small bar, crowd of not more than twenty people. One of the patrons called nine one one. He stated that an Empowered, identity unknown, was drunk and belligerent. Description of events implies that the Empowered has some form of telekinesis, power level sufficient to move objects in excess of a hundred pounds. Range and further details unknown.”
Kelly saw the stone building with a sign that said, simply, ‘BAR.’ He dove and drew level with the ground, switching back to his combat form and breaking into a lurching run. Kelly had to repress a smile. That was only the fourth time he’d managed that without falling. At least he didn’t break his legs every time he landed now, though that’d be pretty tough to do these days.
He rushed through the bar’s front entrance, shattering the thin stone door and healing the minor cuts it caused as he went.
“What the hell!?” a glowing green man shouted, presumably the drunken Empowered. He was hard to look at, just a vaguely human shaped figure surrounded by a bright green glow. The same light surrounded three kegs that were orbiting just above his head, as well as a stream of liquid that was moving from one of the kegs to his mouth. A group of civilians were scattered around the room, cowering in booths or behind the bar.
The green man hadn’t shouted at Kelly. Glory had followed him in and she looked… different. Her hair and clothing had been replaced with shining silver light. Her skin shone golden. Two great, white feathered wings stretched from her back and she carried a sword of flame.
Kelly, the green man and the two dozen or so other occupants of the bar were all staring at her.
“Back to the exercise, trainees. I’m not here.” she snapped.
Kelly shook her head and turned back to Green. “Citadel. Put the beer down and turn off the lightshow.”
Green had to make a visible effort to look away from Glory. “You’re naked.”
Kelly pulled back his lips, baring his jagged shark’s teeth, and cocked his right arm. He started putting pressure on it as he answered. “Shut it down or I will use force.”
“No. I paid for this beer and I’m gonna drink it. Go away.” The flow of beer from the keg sped up. How was he still standing?
Kelly looked around. “Who’s the bartender?”
One of the civilians behind the bar raised his hand.
“Is he telling the truth?”
The man shook his head. “I- I cut him off after twelve and- and he said he wasn’t stopping till he’d had enough. He started glowing and-” He was cut off as one of the kegs, the one Green had been drinking from, crashed into him.
“No!” Kelly cried out. Hector- the bartender, had been crushed by the impact. His broken body started glowing and rose, along with the thrown keg, to join the others orbiting Green.
Kelly’s arm snapped out with a crack, louder than thunder. The heel of his hand crashed into Green’s chest. Well, the short bone spur that jutted out of the heel of his hand did. The other guy flew straight back and crashed into the bar. The glowing kegs and the dead Hector followed him. That hadn’t felt like flesh, more like some sort of forcefield
With a wordless cry, Kelly leapt forward. He landed over Green’s fallen form and wrapped his tentacle hands around him, the left covering his face and the right pinning his arm. Kelly opened his mouth as wide as he could, enough to fit a watermelon, and bit down onto the top of Green’s head. His jaw muscles were modeled on an alligators. He was frantically raking at him with the diamond tipped, titanium claws on his feet.
None of it got through the protective forcefield, though Kelly could hear Green’s panicked screaming. It was muffled by Kelly’s tentacle hand, squeezing his face as hard as he could. The glowing kegs, and Hector, slammed into Kelly. It wasn’t enough to dislodge him, but the hits did send him and Green rolling to the side.
The broken sections of the bar, dislodged by Green’s impact, started glowing and joined the storm of objects crashing into Kelly. He opened his mouth, stopped worrying it against the top of Green’s head, and cried out, “Run!”
The ‘civilians’ didn’t do anything.
“I said run!”
That got them moving.
The glowing objects flew away from them and into the rest of the room. They destroyed tables, chairs and chunks of the wall. Every piece of debris they created gained the same green glow and joined the storm. They flew back and forth, striking Kelly then flying back out to strike something else, creating more debris and more weapons for Green.
It was escalating, he had to shut it down quick.
Kelly shifted his grip, wrapping his arms and legs around Green in a crushing embrace. His feeble struggling wasn’t enough to stop the shapeshifter. He pushed Green’s face into his chest and reshaped it. His head sank into Kelly’s body and he expanded. He had to concentrate to keep the change in effect but it was enough to hold Green in place, and maybe suffocate him, as well as freeing up one of Kelly’s arms. He cocked it back and began straining, preparing another of what Instructor Bruce insisted on calling ‘Mantis Punches.’
“Stop!” Glory commanded. “Calm down, both of you.”
At her words, a silver light washed over the room and, just like that, everything changed. Kelly really was calm. He pulled back, letting Green go. The floating objects settled to the ground and the glow faded. His previously green opponent turned out to be a guy in his twenties, with short blond hair and a trainee’s uniform.
“Everything okay guys?” Glory asked.
“Ye- yeah.” Kelly stuttered a bit. Green, the other trainee, just nodded as he got shakily to his feet.
“What the heck was that?” he asked Kelly.
“Hm?” Kelly didn’t know what he meant.
“Yeah kid. I thought you were ranked more or less in the middle of your class? That was fucking vicious.”
Kelly just shrugged, unsure what to say. He’d gotten a lot better in a fight, but he didn’t think he was anything special compared to the higher ranks.
“Help me.” The voice in his ear was accompanied by a burst of static. It wasn’t Hector’s.
Jorge was finally done with the Stop Soon’s new security system. It was almost two in the afternoon and he could barely keep his eyes open. That might not sound late, but he normally worked nights.
The boss had told him it would be a routine job, just updating the security system in some little Kwiki-Mart style place after a robbery. No big deal, Raccoon Security did a hundred just like it every week. Turned out, the job summary had been missing a few details. Whoever hit the place had done a number on their security system. It looked like the guy had taken a bat to their recording equipment as well as the back-ups. At least he’d left the cameras alone. Weird though, it was usually the other way around.
Jorge turned up the radio in the company van; he needed the noise to keep him awake. The last thing he needed was a fender bender keeping him from meeting his little girl after school.
He couldn’t get his mind off the job. Everything about it had been weird. Those little stores were usually family owned, barely getting by, so they watched every penny. But not only had they demanded he replace the old system with a top of the line model, complete with offsite data storage and a monitored video feed, the owner had been staring over his shoulder the whole time. He’d asked questions every step of the way.
The wife had been almost as bad. She’d been running back and forth, working the register, talking to some insurance guy on the phone and jabbering at her husband in bad Korean. Jorge’s neighbor had been born in Seoul and still liked to speak his childhood language sometimes. Jorge hadn’t learned enough to call himself fluent, but it was enough to let him know the lady wasn’t a native speaker. Weird.
He hit the gas, sped up just enough to get through the light before it went from yellow to red. No way was he gonna be late.
It couldn’t be the first time the place was hit. Those little stores were called stop and robs for a reason. Even with a body, the owners shouldn’t have been so freaked out. They’d been so… so on edge. Jorge reached for his phone, determined to call the boss and ask him if he knew anything else. Maybe they should take another look at the Soons’ insurance claim.
The trashed system was physically protected by a metal cage with a combination lock, not any good if the guy holding a gun to your head told you to open it… But maybe they’d been careless, left it open? Insurance might not cover the damage if they’d been negligent. No, that didn’t make sense. That new rig he’d put in had been way too expensive, the Soons had to be paying the majority of its cost out of pocket.
His cell phone went off in his hand. At the same time, a burst of static came from the radio. He looked down at the cell phone then shifted to the radio, confused. The two words that followed the static, echoed by his phone, kept his attention off the road for just long enough.
The light was green so both he, and the oncoming car, were going at full speed. The other driver drifted out of his proper lane and right into a head on collision with Jorge. His seat belt worked, the air bag deployed just fine and he didn’t see the crash coming in time to tense up. Other than some rather severe bruising across his chest, Jorge would be fine. The same was not true for the other driver, Christian Turam.
Jorge wasn’t thinking about that. He wasn’t thinking about the risk to his job if he was found to be even partially at fault for the collision. He wasn’t thinking about the lost wages or even his daughter, waiting for Daddy to show up. All he could think about, the only thing that registered through the pain and the confused shock, were those two words, repeated over and over.
Sparring Field (Simulation Area)
Kelly had to work harder than he should’ve to resist smashing the communicator. They’d all been saying the same thing for ten minutes now.
“Help who? What do you want?” he asked, frustrated.
“All Citadel operatives capable of high speed, long distance travel are to report to the Hub at once.” Hector said, distantly. His next statement was more personal. “It’s okay, Kelly. They… I think they’ve got it under control. Director Graham is getting everyone organized. It shouldn’t take long to figure out where this is coming from.”
“What is it? I mean, hacking the Citadel system can’t be easy. Who’d do that just for a joke?” asked Jacob Orbit, the boy he’d been thinking of as Green.
“It’s not a virus.” Glory said, holding up her wrist. Next to the large cross emblem sown into the collar, Kelly could see an old fashioned digital watch. The display just showed a bunch of eights, and it was blinking on and off at random. “I don’t know morse code, but if I did I bet I know what it’d say.”
Kelly looked to Hector but he just shook his head before she could ask.
“Nope. I’ll add it to my list but I don’t know it either. She’s probably right though. My car radio’s doing the same thing. TVs, light bulbs, nothing’s working right. Even… even medical equipment.”
All of a sudden, Kelly could feel his heart pounding. She was up and out of her seat, wrapping her arms around the closest Hector before she could think about it. Hector didn’t talk about his mom often, but he’d let enough drop that she had a good idea what that last comment might mean.
“Is… is she okay?” she asked.
Hector nodded, returning the hug. “Yeah. The only thing she really needs are the meds. She spends most of her time hooked up to a vital stats monitor, but… it’s just to track her progress. I hope this is under control soon though.”
Glory and Jacob were staring at her. They both looked a little freaked out by the sudden gender swap.
“He looked like he needed a hug and guys aren’t allowed to do that with other guys. It gets all weird and stuff.” she explained. They didn’t reply but they did settle down. Kelly went back to her seat.
Hector’s voice went distant again. “All Citadel personnel not required to assist, please return to your regular duties.”
Glory gave a deep sigh. It might have been relief. “Good enough for me.” she said, looking from one face to the other. “Where were we?”
A bit hesitantly, Jacob answered. “I think you were about to tell Trainee Protean that hi- er, her, her attacks were a bit overboard? For a training exercise I mean. I’ve got the strongest defense in my class and I was still terrified. If she’d gotten through with just one of those…”
Glory nodded. “Well Kelly? Trainee Orbit is right about that. We can go over the rest of your performance in more detail later, but I’d like an explanation first. Why were you so damned vicious?”
Kelly blinked, not sure what to say at first. “I… was it really that bad?” she asked Jacob.
He gave a slow nod.
“Wow.” she said softly. “Sorry, I thought I was still being pretty careful, what with Instructor Glory being right there.”
“Operative or Healer,” Glory cut in, “I’m not an Instructor. I was just asked to help out because I’m at the Hub on my leave rotation. I’d have said no but I was getting a little antsy.”
“Sorry. Operative Glory was right there and she said she could fix anything short of death…”
“Your first hit… that was harder than anything I’ve ever felt.” Jacob told her, seriously. “It almost took my shield down on its own. If it had, and if you hadn’t just smashed my heart, you could have broken my neck or my skull when I hit the bar.”
Kelly tried to explain as best she could. “No no no, it would’ve been fine.” She hadn’t really been thinking about it at the time, not consciously, but after the last months of training she knew how much punishment a body could take. “If your field hadn’t stopped my hit, this would’ve slid right in.” She shifted her hand to its combat form, showing them the spike at its base. She’d have to thank Jim for that this weekend when they went out for burgers again.
“It would’ve messed up your chest pretty bad, and wrecked your heart, but you wouldn’t have been thrown back. All the energy would just have gone right through you!” she tried to be as reassuring as possible. When he wasn’t pretending to be a drunken idiot, Jacob seemed pretty nice.
“It would’ve taken at least a minute for your brain to start suffering from oxygen deprivation. Same thing with the rest of what I was doing. I was squeezing hard enough to crack bone but not shatter it. Your skull and brain would’ve been intact enough for Operative Glory to fix up. And with the bite, it was a slow, steady pressure so I would’ve felt it when your field went down and not done too much damage.” Instead of relaxing, Jacob’s face just got paler and paler.
“And the claws?” Glory asked, speaking real slow and careful.
“Huh? Those were pretty much just for show, a distraction. I mean, even without the field, all they would have done was disembowel him. That really hurts and it makes it hard to fight, but it’s not dangerous. Not unless I catch a big vein and my foot claws aren’t long enough to really do that.”
She was actually pretty proud of that one. She’d had to switch out her knees and leg muscles during the fight to use it. There was no way she could walk around with the rear facing joints it required, not without a tail. Of course, she wasn’t about to admit the joint structure was based on a chicken’s leg.
“Kelly,” Operative Glory was still using that voice, like she was talking to someone real scary or unstable, “you said your Conditioning instructor was Bruce Richards…”
Kelly nodded and Jacob just looked confused.
“Who’s your combat instructor?” she continued.
“Coach Achala. He did our basic conditioning too.”
“Who’s that?” Jacob asked. “I don’t recognize either name, and I thought I’d been here long enough to meet, or at least hear about, most of the full time staff.”
Ignoring him, Glory kept her attention on Kelly. “You’re a middle of the pack student in a class where the physical and combat courses have all been taught by Overkill Richards and the Juggernaut?” she asked. Her voice had shifted to a kind of horrified awe and her face was worse than Jacob’s had been.
Jacob’s jaw dropped. “Holy shit.” he said softly. “Okay, I take it back. I have heard of them, it’s just… I kind of figured the reputations were exaggerated. But… Kelly, what’s your top ranked fighter like?”
“Jenny? She’s actually really nice. You’d probably like her I bet, everyone does. She’s awesome.”
Ignoring the byplay, Glory asked her, “Who’s the Bugger in your class? It must be one of the best or-”
“The what?” Kelly responded, confused.
“Oh, um, never mind.” Glory hurried on, changing the subject with extreme subtlety. “I think that explains your- your performance. Let’s go over what you did before the fight broke out. If you had non-lethal options available, why did you wait so long to use them once it was obvious that Orbit was drunk and a potential danger to the civilians in the area?”
They went on like that for a while. Once she got over her initial confusion about Kelly’s unconventional fighting style, she concentrated more on the decision making. Why had Kelly broken through the door instead of scouting the building first? If she was going to rush in and invite an attack, why had she stopped to speak? Why not make an attempt to get the civilians out before Orbit had attacked?
Kelly hadn’t thought she was doing things wrong at the time, but that was the point. She hadn’t thought. Some of her actions could’ve been better, but Glory seemed more concerned with making Kelly consider why she’d done what she’d done and what some of the consequences could have been. She even had Jacob explain what he would’ve done if Kelly had acted differently a few times.
Hector spent the whole time just quietly watching. When he finally said something, again in that same weirdly distant tone, it made Kelly wish he’d stayed quiet.
“Disruption is confirmed to be nationwide. All Citadel personnel are advised, this is now a Class One threat with the potential to escalate.”
“Escalate?” Kelly asked. “You mean, they think this could be…?”
Hector nodded, his face grim. “Yeah. Worst case scenario, we’re looking at an extinction level event.”
Beneath the Tower
Director Shift arrived, not bothering to use the door, and took a seat. That made three of the Citadel’s five directors and one Congressional Representative at the table. At their backs were a number of aids and assistants, including one Hector for each of the direct participants. He would’ve given just about anything not to be there.
“Gentlemen, we now have a quorum of the Citadel’s leadership.” said Director Shift, with just a touch of ceremony. “Does anyone have a problem with my taking the lead for the duration?” She looked around but no one said anything.
“Very well. Director Dione, what are we dealing with?”
Hector had met Alec Dione, the Director of Analysis, when Bruce had set him up with his ‘internship.’ Alec was an older man, sixties or seventies, with a face roughened by long exposure to the sun and wispy silver hair that he kept tied back in a short pony tail. He didn’t know whether the man was a former operative or if the name was just a coincidence. Hector had, briefly, considered doing his usual research on the man. He’d decided against it when he realized that the director would almost certainly find out and might react poorly to the invasion of privacy.
“Widespread disruption of technology, especially electronic and computer based devices. At minimum, this interference is occurring in every location we have a Citadel office. It’s all but certain that the same thing is happening throughout the Western States and it could be global.”
“What’s our response so far?” she asked.
“Gates are still up so we’ve been able to maintain contact. Trainee Hive,” he gave a nod towards Hector, “was present at each of our major Analysis centers. He’s a large scale duplicator whose multiple bodies share what amounts to a single mind. We’ve been using him to facilitate communications. Support provided us with a group of long range teleporters capable of carrying him to widespread locations.”
“So, in short, we know how bad the problem is but we’re still in contact with the bulk of our organization. Are we all agreed that this is a danger to the nation’s integrity, a Class One threat?”
Everyone gave a nod of agreement, except the third director. Anthony Greer of Support. Hector hadn’t met him before today but he was a short, mousy looking man in his late fifties. The Director of Support wore quiet competence like a well fitted suit.
“Melody, it’s worse than that.” he said. “Support uses Empowered generated electricity to keep the Hub at full capacity in a crisis, so it isn’t visible here…” he took a deep breath before going on. “But there’re widespread black outs. Some of that is doubtless just from the interference, but not all. We’ve seen a significant drop in current from the solar network.”
Directors Shift and Dione were the only two in the room who didn’t flinch at the implication.
The government guy was the one who actually asked the question. “Are- are you saying the solar plants are down?”
“No Mr. Randall. You can’t just turn off a solar power plant. If they aren’t producing current, it’s because they’ve been manually disengaged from the network. The only reason the workers would do that…”
“Is if they were going unstable.” he finished for her. “God help us.”
“Trainee Hive,” came Director Shift’s controlled voice, “please spread the word that this is now a Class One, with the potential to escalate to an extinction level event. Additionally, we need to get our Turing types to those power plants. Instruct Support to coordinate that.”
Hector went pale, all of him, but he did as he was told.
“What are we doing to find the source?” she asked.
“Analysis is currently working on the theory that this is the work of a lone, off the scale Turing type.” Dione told her.
“You think this is an attack?” Mr. Randall interrupted.
“No Representative, we do not. The… nature of the messages certainly implies otherwise. Most likely, we’re looking for someone who just had their Empowerment. He, or she, doesn’t know what they’re doing or how to control their new powers. Turing types often lose themselves in the early stages of learning what they can do. This seems to be consistent with previous incidents, just on a vastly larger scale.”
“Have you been able to narrow it down?” she asked. “Do we know where this is coming from?”
“Difficult to be certain,” he grimaced, “but it looks like Carson City.”
Hector couldn’t help stiffening at that.
“Less than a decade since the Chemo incident.” Director Shift said, quietly. “Poor bastards.” She gave the directors of Support and Analysis a firm look, “Fine. Who are you using to search the city?”
“Both Powers and a handful of Speed types.” Director Greer answered. “We don’t have a teleporter who’s familiar with the area but we do have a telepath, Carol Speaker, who can transfer visual images. All we need is a rough location and someone that does know the place and we can end this.”
The Hector nearest to Director Shift stepped forward. “Ma’am. It’s my home town.”
Barely turning to look at him, she gave him his instructions. “Contact Carol, she should be in the Gate Room.” Director Greer nodded. “Have Drew Stasis meet you there. Once she’s given him enough to go on, have him look for any obvious signs of disruption. Anything that stands out to him can be examined in more detail by the teleporters and the Speed types. Accompany as many of them as you can.”
Again, he did as he was told.
Less than a minute later, Drew had a dozen locations that were worth checking out.
A winged flyer set him down on the roof of a hospital. It was the only building in sight that had fully functioning lights. He split off dozens of new hims, checked floor by floor and room by room. He couldn’t find any sign that the Turing type was there. He wasn’t entirely sure what it would look like but this didn’t seem to be it.
“What about the Gatekeeper?” Mr. Randall asked. “Wouldn’t he be better suited to this?”
“No.” Director Dione answered, “His… difficulties make deploying him in the current situation problematic.”
The Representative didn’t seem to understand so the Director of Support clarified. “He’s easily the most powerful operative the Citadel has, but he’s a severe agoraphobe. He never sets foot outside of a secure chamber he maintains at a private location.” he shook his head. “The only way we have of even reaching him is by communicator, through a tiny gate he keeps open for that purpose. Right now, we can’t even tell him we need help. Besides, he’s no better suited to a search like this, even without the handicaps, than our regular teleporters.”
Randall didn’t seem pleased by the information but he did accept it.
A short range teleporter, a tall man with dark eyes and a serious expression, carried him across the city in a series of quick hops. They came to a shopping mall. The lights were off but every screen, television, computer and cell phone was showing the same children’s program. Again, he split up to search the building and speak to people. By the time he was done, there was no sign of the unknown Turing type but he was thoroughly sick of that damned singing frog puppet.
“What- what are you going to do when you find this- this Turing type. You said this wasn’t an attack, just an accident, so…” Randall’s voice trailed off as he looked around the table. No one looked away from him but they didn’t answer him either.
“We’ll do what’s needed, Mr. Randall. That’s what we’re for.” After Director Shift spoke, the room was quiet for a time. Eventually, she beckoned her Hector to lean forward and spoke quietly in his ear.
William Power set him down for a moment and used a series of well placed blows to open a hole in the second story of a high school. He retrieved Hector and they entered together. It looked like a computer science lab, row after row of monitors. Each one held the familiar message.
A group of teenagers was gathered around a fallen girl. An older man, a teacher, spoke up when he saw them. There was fear in his voice, but there was determination too.
“She just collapsed in class. I- I tried to call nine one one, but…”
“It’s her.” William Power said. There was no doubt in his voice.
“We found her.” She couldn’t be more than two or three years younger than him, but she looked so young. “It’s a girl, a high school kid.” Hector announced.
“Is there any question?” asked Director Shift.
“Operative Power says no, ma’am. He says, ‘Her light is the brightest I’ve ever seen. It’s brighter than my brother’s, Hagedorn’s, even Everyman’s.'”
She gave a small, tight nod. “Trainee Hive, carry out your orders.”
He drew his pistol and, before the teacher or her classmates could react, fired a single shot.
The silence was broken by a beep from Greer’s wrist. He looked down, touched his communicator, then announced, “Power levels are stabilizing. It’s over.”
Hector would’ve given just about anything not to be there.
Los Angeles County General Health Center
Dr. Gregory Haus ran the busiest ER in the county. On a busy day, they handled more than a quarter of the emergency care patients in LA. Right now, they weren’t very crowded but they lacked most of their usual tools. It was worse than a busy day.
“I need more light.” he told his intern, Renolds, keeping his voice as calm as he could.
She moved the flashlight a little higher, letting someone else add another beam. He moved quickly, so quickly that it would have seemed rushed to anyone that had never watched emergency surgery before. A clamp here, a cut there-
“Suction.” he said.
-and the patient was done. Hopefully not done for, but that was out of his hands now. “Close up.” he told Renolds. He stepped back, keeping his hands at chest level, and let her move in to take over. A nurse approached him and he questioned her as he removed his bloody gloves.
“What’s next, the GSW or the bowel perforation?”
Her answer had the same hurried calm as the question. Out of everything in the hospital, a competent nurse was by far the most useful to him. “Steinman has the bowel, sir, the gunshot wound-”
He nodded, no need to make her finish. Haus knew what that look meant.
“Fine, that’s the last of the Reds?” he asked.
“Move on to the Yellows then. I think the girl with the compound fracture in her-”
The lights came back on. The air filled with beeps and whirring as machines and computers restarted, overshadowed by the muffled cries of joy from patients and hospital staff alike.
“Never mind.” he smiled. “Get her up to x-ray before surgery. Hopefully she’ll be able to keep both legs, instead of just her life.” She started to turn away but he stopped her. “Oh, and spread the word. We’re back on standard triage protocol.”
He didn’t need to see her face to know she’d be smiling the whole way.
Greg took a moment to relax, just one. He’d learned a long time ago, in a situation like this, you had to take a moment now and then. It was the only way to stay useful to your patients, let alone sane. That said, when he learned whose idiocy had left his ER without backup power in the middle of a blackout…
“Renolds.” He kept his voice quiet. No one who heard it would have mistaken it for calm. “What did I tell you about your damn phone? No intern of mine-”
“Sir.” she cut him off. He let her go on when he saw the sick dread in her eyes. “It wasn’t a blackout. Some- some kind of Empowered. It shut down the whole city, the whole country.”
He held back the words he wanted to say, to scream. “Renolds, we’ll discuss the phone later. For now, what’s the situation in the rest of the city? What are we looking at? Is it actually over?”
She nodded. “They’re saying the Citadel, William Power stopped it. But… planes crashed, people lost control of their cars on the freeway and… The solar station near Columbia…”
Half of him wanted to cower in the corner when he thought about what she was saying. He shoved that half aside. “Fine. Your phone’s back on. Are the cell towers working again?”
She shook her head. “I- I pay extra for service from the Great Bell. You know, that Richards type that runs a private network?”
This time he did swear. Even as he made a note to pick up the service himself- if he couldn’t get the hospital to do it- he gave her the orders she needed. “Call the local Citadel office and request Support. If they can spare any Healers, we’ll need them.” He grabbed a passing nurse. “Spread the word, incoming mass casualties. We’re back on emergency protocol, as of now.” The nurse acknowledged the order, then was on his way.
His intern still hadn’t dialed. “Sir, I can’t find the-” He snatched the phone out of her hands and dialed from memory. The Los Angeles Citadel Office receptionist was as competent as ever, even if this one did sound like a kid. He didn’t promise Greg immediate aid but he assured him County General would be given top priority. From anyone else, he would’ve taken that as a brush off, but the Citadel knew how priorities were meant to work. He gave the kid Renolds’s contact info and told him to use that rather than the hospital’s normal number. There was no way to know when the regular lines would be back up.
“Sir, how did you know…” she trailed off.
He managed to hold back the contemptuous snort. “Renolds, you’ve got the potential to be a damn fine doctor, but you need to learn. Every tool, every single thing that lets you do your job better, is valuable. Use them. Just don’t let yourself be dependent on them. You need to be able to stand on your own two feet when the time comes.”
She didn’t reply, not at first. For a moment he was afraid he’d pushed her that little bit too far, broken something. Then he saw her shoulders pull back, her spine straighten and that look in her eye. It was the last time he’d think of her as ‘just’ an intern. “Yes sir, I understand.”
He nodded. “For now, that phone is your job. We need to get in touch with emergency services, let them know to route as much of their patient load our way as possible. Talk to Nurse Bai, she’ll tell you who to contact.”
She nodded. “I’ll handle it.”
He didn’t need to hear the reply to know that. Greg was already off to take care of his own job.
Gregory Haus was in his element, a hundred things to juggle and any one of them could mean life or death for someone. He stood at the entrance to what he thought of as ‘his’ ER, directing the movement of patients and staff alike. Renolds was at his side, cell phone glued to her ear.
“Any word on a Donor yet?” he asked. He gave two patients a red tag and one a green.
“Yes sir, we’ve got Rachel Mulligan going under now. No word from Morrisey or Peters.”
Red patients went into the ER, immediate care would make all the difference there. Green were walking wounded, no immediate danger. Some of them were made to wait while others were put to work, helping out.
“She can give blood but that’s all, correct?”
“Yes sir, type O, one liter a minute.” Renolds answered, not slowing the pace of her fingers over her phone’s screen as she spoke. “I’ve got the rest of the ambulance services back online. They’ll be sending everyone our way. First arrival will be in less than five minutes.”
“Good work. How’d you manage that?” Two more greens and a yellow. The last would definitely need intervention but he could wait.
She grinned. “I contacted my provider and pointed out that if he could give emergency services free support during the crisis, he’d be a lock as their new standard carrier.”
He couldn’t help grinning himself. “Nice.” Woops. The orderly he’d just handed a black tag patient over to looked horrified. Black meant no hope. They’d be made comfortable but that was it. Wasting any further resources at a time like this could mean the death of someone savable. “Any further word from the Citadel?”
She paused to confirm before answering. “Healer support is due in less than ten, sir.”
“Did they say who?” He sent two MAs to restrain a yellow patient. The man had a broken femur and if he kept thrashing like that he’d pull the leg loose from its improvised traction. It could easily get him a black tag if the bone severed the femoral.
“I don’t recognize the names. Aid Station, Retcon and a security detail.”
He froze as she read off the names. It was more dignified than the dance of joy he wanted to do.
“Take over here.” he ordered, ignoring the fact that an intern should never be trusted with triage on this scale. She didn’t bat an eye, even when he turned and ran into the ER.
The area was crammed with as many patients as he could manage, red along the walls and black in the primary sections.
“Keep them breathing,” he ordered, “nothing else matters right now. As long as their hearts are beating they’ll still have a chance!” Despite the urgency of his words, his hands were steady as he worked the bag, pushing air into the lungs of a man who had more blood outside his body than in.
A bright scarlet light washed over everything, clinging to himself and everyone else in the room, everyone with that precious heartbeat. At the same moment, he felt a familiar flow of energy. He was a little less tired than he should be, a little more alert. He ignored the shocked looks around him as he let go of the bag and did that dance of joy he’d been holding in. He only let it last for a moment, but it was a good moment nonetheless.
“All you have to worry about is patching the worst damage. As long as Stanton Aid is in the room, every one of our patients will get a little stronger by the second. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Retcon can reset anyone’s body so they’re in the same shape they’re in now. Once you have a patient stable, sing out. She’ll flash your patient so she can reset them to the same state if something else goes wrong.”
Greg watched the looks of awe spread. It was easy to tell who’d worked with the pair before, they were the ones who just did as he’d told them without having to be reassured. There was no such thing as a black tag with those two.
They’d had to open the patient’s ribcage and go in with far less finesse than heart surgery normally involved. Now… now it was fixing itself as he watched. All they were doing was clamping the damaged arteries and veins in place. That was enough. They used the same process, just holding body parts in the right location until the damage repaired itself, as they closed.
“You’re just sitting there!?”
Greg looked up, his own heart sinking.
“Stop her!” he shouted. How had she gotten back here?
A woman, covered in mud and soot, charged through the ER. She was headed directly for the Citadel contingent, screaming, where Stanton Aid lounged in a folding chair with a book in hand. Retcon stood just behind him, both recognizable in their Healer greys and masks.
“My son is dying and you’re sitting there? Mons-”
Greg watched as a flash of red came from Retcon, followed by a blast of intense heat from one of the white clad operatives that served as their security. The screaming was cut off abruptly as the woman’s charred corpse fell to the ground.
“No! Keep working, dammit!” he commanded the handful of hospital staff who were moving to help the fallen woman. Before he’d finished, that same operative raised his left hand and a wall of ice separated the Citadel contingent from the rest of the room. The ice didn’t look right, pale blue rather than clear. “Can you handle it from here?” he asked Renolds.
“Yes sir, it’s outside of my training but I understand what you’re doing.” she answered.
He gave her a moment to make sure she had it, then approached the strange ice. Coils of fog streamed off it. Greg made sure to keep his stride even and controlled.
“I’m sorry for the disturbance.” he said.
The dim shape that he thought was Retcon moved a little closer. “No harm done.” she said. “I’ll fix her up before we leave. You need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, though. Next time, I might not be fast enough.”
“I’ll see to it.” he said, sick inside. That had been too close. He left the ER, determined to do just that.
Seventeen hours, but they’d done it. All the black tags had been stabilized and admitted to the hospital proper. The last four reds were being worked on now, and he was sure they’d be fine soon.
“Thank you.” he told Stanton.
The senior Healer looked up from his book. “Not a problem. Looks like you’ve got things pretty much under control here.” He gestured to the two Healer trainees, wearing grey pants and white shirts. They left the patients they’d been assisting with and returned to the Citadel group. “We need to leave or the rest of the Citadel’s medical contingent will be useless all week.” Stanton Aid folded down the corner of his page and stood, folding the chair he’d been using down into a bundle small enough to fit under his arm.
“Stanton, do you mind if I ask you something?” Greg asked.
He just nodded.
“Why the book? I know your power helps everyone in the room, regardless of what you’re doing, but tonight’s not the first time I’ve seen it cause problems.”
The Healer shrugged. Greg thought he might be smiling beneath his mask. “Thirteen years since we first worked together. Has it been bugging you the whole time?”
“Actually, yes.” Greg answered sheepishly. For some reason his normal confidence deserted him every time he spoke to the other man.
“I don’t like seeing people hurt.” His voice was level, calm. “I know that must seem strange, given what I do, but it’s always been the case. My power’s effect is strongest when I’m calm. I use the book so I don’t focus on what’s happening around me.”
Greg watched the Citadel contingent depart, unsure how he felt about the answer. Stanton Aid might not look it, but he was old enough to be Greg’s father. Most of his life had been spent saving lives, just like tonight.
“Incredible. So much… I can’t even imagine what I’d do with that kind of power.” Renolds spoke, she’d approached without his notice. “I wonder, what could they do if they didn’t spend most of their time fighting people in funny costumes?”
He didn’t turn away from the Healers and their guardians. “I imagine they’d probably be dead.”
“What?” The confusion in her voice was stronger than the exhaustion barely held at bay by Stanton Aid’s influence.
Greg had to take a moment before he answered her. “That’s what happens to Healers that don’t join the Citadel, at least the ones with any sort of power. That’s why the hospital’s not full of them.” He turned to face her before he went on.
“Imagine you’re rich, powerful and desperate. Maybe it’s a tumor, maybe heart disease or something else. The point is, you’ve got something bad that normal medicine can’t fix. Even the more common Healers can’t really help you.”
She nodded, slow and considering. Since their talk, she’d been making an obvious effort to do that.
“You’ve got the resources to get the attention of a big time healer, Aid Station, Retcon or Vector. One of the ones that comes along once every few decades.” She obviously didn’t recognize the last one. No surprise, she’d shown a lot of promise but… to put it kindly, her career had ended early.
“Even most of them probably won’t be able to help you, not really. Healers are almost never able to do anything significant about chronic conditions. But you’re desperate. Maybe you don’t believe what they say, maybe you don’t care. Even a little relief might be more valuable than gold to you. So you find a Healer, you take them and you keep them. You make them use their power as often as they can, push their limit until you burn them out. Once they’re no good to you anymore… you can’t exactly let them go, can you?”
She swallowed. “Has… has that actually happened?”
Greg shrugged, the weariness was hitting him hard, now that Stanton was gone. “Only a few times and mostly in the early days. Partly, that’s because most Healers attach themselves to the Citadel, or someone else who can protect them. Also, thankfully, the sort of person with the mindset and the ability to do that is a rare thing.”
He almost mistook her quiet for consideration, but she’d finally moved past simple exhaustion and was nearly dead on her feet. “Renolds.” Greg shook her shoulder to get her attention. “Go home, your job’s done here.” She just nodded, dully. “Oh, one thing before you go.” She looked up, a little life creeping back into her expression at the thought that she might be needed. “I was wrong about that potential. You’re already a damn fine doctor.”
Gregory Haus couldn’t count the number of lives he’d saved that night. He thought of the man whose leg he’d reattached, the girl whose eyes he’d helped fix, even the woman who’d woken from a death she wouldn’t remember in a flash of red light. None of it compared to the look on Dr. Renolds’ face in that moment.
Silver State Charter High School
She gave a small, tight nod. “Trainee Hive, carry out your orders.”
He drew his pistol and, before the teacher or her classmates could react, fired a single shot. There was a spray of blood from the fallen girl’s arm, just below the shoulder. She woke with a gasp and a startled cry.
Every computer screen in the room went black and the lights came back on. “Power levels are stabilizing. It’s over.” announced Director Greer. Quicker than Hector could track, William Power shouldered past him and scooped the girl up like she weighed nothing at all. There was a gust of wind; it reminded Hector of standing by the side of the road when a semi passed, and Power was gone.
“What- Did you- Was that William Power?”
Hector was a little impressed. The older man, presumably the class’s teacher, was obviously terrified but he was pulling himself together for the sake of his student.
“Yes sir. The girl-”
“Her name is Abby, Abigail Werner.” There was a touch of fire in the man’s voice as he interrupted Hector.
He nodded, then carried on. “Abby then. She was Empowered, probably just now. I’d guess she was having trouble in class?” The man nodded. “We think she’s a Turing type, someone who can control or influence computers with their mind. She doesn’t know how to control it though, so…” Words failed him as Hector tried to explain what Abbigail’s newfound power had unleashed.
“We had to stop it.” he said instead, gesturing at the city in chaos, through the hole William Power had left in the wall.
“You shot her.” The teacher’s voice was flat.
Hector nodded. “I had to wake her up, fast. It seemed likely that the shock would bring her out of the… the trance her power was keeping her in.”
The man didn’t ask, he didn’t have to. Hector could see the knowledge in his eyes, what Hector would’ve had to do if the first shot hadn’t worked. “You couldn’t have just used smelling salts or something?” he asked instead.
Hector gave him a sheepish grin. “Sorry, didn’t have any on me. I’m still in training.” He made a note, one more item on the list of useful gear. Luckily, this one was small enough that it wouldn’t be much of an issue.
Beneath the Tower
Everyone else had already left the room. The directors of Support and Analysis would have their hands full, cleaning up the mess the last hour would’ve left behind. Their personnel had left with them. Representative Randall had left to… represent something? Hector had no idea, but the man had seemed to think it was urgent. That just left him, well, five of him and Director Melody Shift.
During the crisis, she’d been calm, confident, exactly the woman they’d needed. Now that it was past… she was just an old woman who hadn’t slept in too long, clutching her cane as she struggled to stand. Hector stepped forward to help her and looked her in the eye once she was on her feet.
“Well? Spit it out boy.” Her hands were shaking but her voice was still as steady as ever.
“Ma’am… your orders… I’m not in Columbia anymore. I had almost fifty mes, spread all over the city.”
She didn’t say anything, just held his gaze with her own while she waited for him to finish.
“I know there is… was, a solar power plant near the city. I… I think it blew, right after I shot her.”
“What’s the girl’s name? I assume you know by now.” There wasn’t any emotion in the director’s voice, just a straightforward request for information.
“Abigail Werner.” he said. “If you hadn’t told me to keep her alive, to wake her up instead of…” He couldn’t say it. Hector was sure… Hector thought he could’ve done it, but he couldn’t say it. “The plant might have stabilized. The city might still be there. I know it was only a few seconds, but… why? After everything we’ve been taught, after everything you had them put us through, why did you hesitate?”
Silver State Charter High School
The high school kids had been nervous at first, scared of the stranger who’d just shot someone they knew. But a Citadel trainee, one just a little older than them and one who obviously knew William Power, was just too good to pass up. They swarmed around Hector, asking question after question. It was almost enough to leave him feeling overwhelmed. He answered a few, trying to get them to calm down, until a boy asked one that cut right through the chaos.
“What’s going to happen to Abby?”
Beneath the Tower
She hadn’t seemed to mind that he was questioning her, even when he was a hair’s breadth from accusing her of being responsible for the death of a city. But implying that Director Melody Shift had hesitated out of compassion, out of reluctance to order the death of a child? That seemed to do the trick.
“Operative Hive, be silent.” she ordered. The look in her eyes, that cold anger in her voice… “Abigail Turing-”
“It’s Werner, ma’am.” He didn’t know how he’d managed to interrupt her. Thank god his tone had been polite.
“Not anymore it isn’t.” she said. “Abigail Turing is an Empowered on the same scale as the Tyrant or the Monarch. Without any training, without even knowing what she was doing, that girl brought one of the most powerful nations in the world to its knees.”
“That’s why w-” he started to say. The room flickered, and the Hector that had been talking felt the strangest sensation.
He was falling. He tried to reach out, to catch himself, but he couldn’t feel anything. He hit the ground, bounced. It was so strange. That Hector tried to speak, not even sure what he wanted to say, but no sound came out. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath…
“I told you to be silent.” Director Shift said, vanishing and reappearing in front of another Hector.
That one, as well as all the other Hectors in the room, was too distracted by the sensation of being decapitated to respond. She’d only teleported a few feet, but she’d taken his head with her and left the rest of him behind. He supposed it was really no worse than if she’d slapped someone else. It hurt him, left him frightened and embarrassed, but it didn’t do any real harm. The body, and all its duplicated items, would dissipate over the next few hours. It wouldn’t even leave a mess.
“We need power like that, Operative Hive. The Battlegrounds are still growing, the Bug Bomb’s effects proved stable and the Tyrant is dying. The Citadel’s job is getting more difficult by the day. We. Can. Not. Fail.”
She looked into his eyes and Hector was truly terrified. Since his Empowerment, there had only ever been one thing that made Hector fear for his life, one person. Now there were two.
“Hector, that girl will spend the next months at an American embassy in England.” Her voice was quieter, not less intense. “The Monarch’s effect should restrain her power until we can teach her to control it. She, and other measures we’re putting into place, might be enough to keep the human race from sliding into utter ruin. Do I regret that a city died? Obviously. Would I make the same decision again? Hector, I would’ve traded ten for a weapon like that.”
Silver State Charter High School
Hector gave the boy the best answer he could. “She’ll be in a safe place. Somewhere- somewhere she can learn to use her power without hurting anyone and- and she’ll be surrounded by people that will do anything to protect her.”
The boy nodded his head and said, his voice solemn, “Thank you.”
Hector gave the only answer he could. “We’re the Citadel, son. It’s what we’re for.”