Paragon327 and LittleMissA entered the ruined city. The streets were choked with wrecked cars, the buildings covered in graffiti. Not a single unbroken window was visible.
“What is the significance of the timer at the top of the screen?” Jason asked.
“Oh, that’s because we’re in the Tyrant’s territory. As soon as the counter hits zero, he takes over our minds and we’re his slaves.” Jenny explained. “It speeds up or slows down depending on what we do.”
“That…” Jason made sure to furrow his brow as he responded. “That does not sound consistent with what I have read of his power. It was my understanding that the effect was instantaneous within the borders of Europe.”
Jenny shrugged. “Sure, but this is just a game. That wouldn’t be much fun.”
A group of men and women, wearing scraps and the remnants of more normal clothing, exited the nearest building. They were hunched over, using their arms to support themselves as they moved, like chimps or gorillas. The foremost grunted and pointed at the two heroes. The pack swarmed forward.
“I assume those are the slaves you spoke of.” Jason observed.
Jenny shrugged. “Eh. Those are just NPCs.”
LittleMissA moved forward and clapped her hands. A shockwave went forth, knocking down the nearest opponents and doing minor damage to the rest. Paragon327 stayed back, insuring that she would more easily be able to maintain aggro on the group. He activated his support aura. Together with his targeted buffs, it would increase LittleMissA’s strength, toughness and regeneration.
Working as a pair, they were able to defeat the group of feral civilians with relative ease.
“I thought you said that this was one of the more difficult areas.”
“It’s a pain to solo,” Jenny said, “but a balanced group, even just a tank and a support character, makes everything easier.”
LittleMissA began looting their fallen foes.
“Still, that was pretty easy. The thing that makes this zone really nasty is the other PCs. If the timer gets you, the computer makes a duplicate that attacks other players. It’s kinda cool though, you can switch over and control the evil version instead of your regular character.”
Paragon327 rose into the air, surrounded by bands of purple energy. His health bar began to rapidly shrink.
“Like that, I assume?” Jason asked, as a new figure appeared and attacked LittleMissA with the same purple energy. Without his healing, she fell quickly. The black, featureless opponent turned back to Paragon327 before he was free of the disabling effect and was able to easily defeat him as well.
Jenny sighed and set down her controller. “Yep. That guy had at least a few levels on us. Probably player controlled, too. You can tell because they almost always take out the healer first.”
“I suppose that makes sense. That same tactic is likely why operative teams so rarely include a Healer in the field.” Jason said, setting down his controller as well.
“Thanks for coming over by the way. I know your rankings don’t really matter to you, but it still means a lot to me.” she said.
Jason shrugged. “It is not that they do not matter.” He almost smiled to express his pleasure. The shrug had been reflexive, natural. He did not, as making an artificial gesture to express pleasure in a spontaneous one seemed… disingenuous. “Simply that I thought it unlikely that I could maintain a high rank without using the more lethal aspect of my ability. I am capable of great strength, but the proper approach can deplete my store of lives quite rapidly.”
“Like that time with Kelly?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, that is correct. When he struck me, he left a large number of minute wounds. Each one took the same amount of… energy to heal as a major one would have. It left me completely depleted and vulnerable.” Jason explained.
Jenny nodded. “There’s something I meant to ask you about that. I know it’s been awhile but, I’m always a little… distracted when we’re alone and it didn’t seem like the sort of thing I should bring up around other people.” She turned to face him and her face lit up with joy as she met his gaze.
Jason rarely wore his glasses around her. Only a handful of people had ever looked into his eyes without… an unpleasant reaction. She was the only one for whom it seemed to be an enjoyable experience. Further, he found it to be quite relaxing that there was nothing he needed to hide from Jenny. She truly accepted him for who he was.
“When we were in the fake bank, that same day Kelly took you and Anna down. That other guy, the Jordan type…”
“Michael.” Jason interjected.
“Yeah, him. He left one of Hector’s clones lying on the ground and Sammy killed it by accident.”
“I recall.” Jason said. “It seemed unusual because she normally maintains excellent control of her shots.”
“Yeah.” Jenny said, dropping her gaze and turning her head slightly aside. “I think I made her do that.” she said quietly.
“I had not considered the possibility.” Jason said, taking a moment to do just that. “Thank you.”
“What?” she asked.
“As I said, Kelly’s attack left me powerless. In addition, his venom is paralytic and quite painful. When Samantha’s bullet struck Hector, I was likely moments away from killing him in the hope of relief.”
Jenny’s mouth hung slightly open for a moment. “What… what would that have done. I mean… would that have killed just the one or…”
“I am not certain.” Jason told her. “It is possible that only the one body would have died. I think it slightly more likely that all of his bodies would have died. If I target a blade of grass, the entire organism dies, despite the fact that I can only see a relatively small portion of the plant. I suspect the same principle would have applied.”
“It was… was just training. Why…” Jenny did not complete her question.
“It would have been a poor decision. If I received a single life, it would have done no more than heal a single one of the dozens of wounds I still had at the time. Even if killing Hector yielded me a life for each of his bodies, it still would have ended poorly for me. Director Shift has made it clear to me that such an act on my part would yield a lethal response from the Citadel. Our group session on Friday was the first combat training where I could act without restraint. To put it simply, Jenny, I was frightened.”
Jenny nodded, slowly.
“That is why I said thank you.” Jason smiled. It was not spontaneous, but it was sincere.
“I wonder…” again, Jenny spoke more slowly than normal. “Do you think, did my power push her into that to protect you?”
“I do not know. Your power’s… motivations are often difficult for me to understand. I have noticed that you have recently been kinder to me in public, especially around large groups.”
“Huh, that’s true. After that time Hector had to separate us, Duncan started ragging on you pretty hard. He’s never been exactly popular, but it’s gotten a lot worse since we started the group exercises. The guy’s so disruptive that everyone kind of hates him now. Him making fun of you actually seems to have made people like you more.”
Jason smiled, almost chuckling. “Well, that is not the form of acceptance I hoped for when I applied to the Citadel, but I suppose it is still a step forward.”
Jenny smiled as well, then asked him a question. “So if being powerless bothered you so much, have you thought about how to keep it from happening again? Maybe you should ask Hector for advice. He’s pretty good at the planning stuff. Or maybe Instructor Bruce?”
Jason reached down and withdrew a plastic tube from his pocket. It was large enough to hold easily, about the length of his palm. He held it up so that Jenny could see its contents more easily.
“I have been breeding flies since shortly after I arrived here. Every morning, I absorb the life from a vial like this one and I make sure to always have another on my person.”
“Wow.” Jenny said. “How many is that? And won’t you go through however many you have left pretty quick at that rate?”
“It varies a bit, but at least several hundred. The ones I use are amongst the older flies, those least likely to produce more young. Also, I have enough now that their numbers still increase steadily, despite losing two vials a day.” he told her.
“Huh,” she said, an unusual tone in her voice. “That’s pretty clever. I don’t know if I would have thought of something like that.”
“Thank you,” he returned the fruit flies to his pocket. “I cannot take the credit though. It was my mother’s idea.”
After that, they sat in comfortable silence for a time.
Isaac took a sip of his coffee, using the mug to hide his smile. He hadn’t bothered to keep up his act around the house. Hector wouldn’t buy it. Jason… Isaac was starting to think there might be something off about the boy. He didn’t react quite right to too many things. As for Kelly… Isaac wouldn’t risk hurting his feelings for the world, or hers, whichever. Even so, he didn’t think showing the broad smile, still trying to fight its way free, would be a good idea. Hector might not react well.
The duplicator was making breakfast, that same combination of eggs and salsa he’d served on the first morning. His eyes were red-rimmed, obviously the after effects of crying, but everything about him shouted that it was a good thing. The energy in his movements, the enormous grin, he was practically bouncing with joy. Isaac brought his expression under control before breaking the morning’s silence.
“I take it your mother’s doing better?” Isaac asked.
Hector handed him a plate, heavy with eggs and bacon.
“She’s asleep.” he said.
Rather than answer, Isaac just cocked his head quizzically.
“Isaac, she hasn’t slept, really slept, in as long as I can remember. The closest she’s come is… well, just a sort of drugged stupor.”
There were tears in the boy’s eyes. Again, they were obviously happy tears. Isaac took a bite of bacon. It was good.
“Glad to hear it.” Isaac let the smile out now. “Does Jason know?”
“Do I know what?” their roommate asked.
Isaac hadn’t heard him come in, but that was pretty common. The boy was quiet. It wasn’t sneaky, more like he just moved in a very controlled manner. Something like the way a dancer or martial artist moved, very aware of his own body, but not quite the same. More like… it was more like Jason didn’t make any unnecessary movements.
“We were just talking about your and Hector’s mothers. He said that she was able to help.” Isaac told him.
He was wearing his normal outfit, pressed slacks and button-down shirt in dark colors, complete with dark sunglasses. The only time he’d ever taken them off, so far as Isaac knew, was during the first day’s ranking matches. At least, that Anna Insight girl had mentioned something about it. He was pretty sure the young man’s Empowerment had come with some sort of physical change. Those weren’t exactly common, but he wouldn’t be the only one in their class. Everyone had seen the angry kid with the scales and wings, and Isaac knew of another boy, an energy absorber, with metallic silver hair. Some Empowered with altered features wore them with pride, others tried to conceal them.
“I spoke to my mother last night. She said that she had been successful but that there were likely to be weeks or months of work still required. I was more than a little surprised. A little research was enough to inform me of the severity of Chemo’s… toxin, I suppose. I had not realized that my mother’s healing capability was so advanced.” Jason said.
Hector set a plate in front of him as Jason took a set, then rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Jason, I… I can’t thank you enough. My mom means everything to me, and…”
Isaac looked away. This wasn’t any of his business and it seemed far too personal for him to interrupt.
“… if there’s ever anything I can do for you… please, I can’t possibly pay you back for this.”
Isaac heard the sound of chewing before Jason answered. “In truth, I believe that any debt you might owe is more properly owed to my mother. But if you insist, I need some oatmeal.”
What? Isaac had to restrain the urge to ask.
“What?” Hector said.
“My food supply has been diminishing more quickly than I expected. The commercial version is a mixture of cornhusks and oats, with some blue dye to make the larvae more visible.” Jason told him.
“What?” Hector asked again.
Isaac remembered the packages he’d helped Jason carry in, as well as the descriptions of some of the bio majors he’d known in college, and put it all together just as Jason explained.
“I have been breeding fruit flies. Recently, their numbers have been increasing at a greater and greater rate. I know that you keep a large supply of oatmeal and, as I said, my food supply is unexpectedly depleted. Oatmeal should serve well enough, if you could spare some.”
Isaac had no idea what to make of that. Fly breeding was… kind of an unusual hobby. Normally he’d have asked but, coming on the tail of the heavier topic, he still didn’t want to interfere. Bemusedly, Hector agreed to supply the oatmeal. Jason only needed a couple large cups, as well as some baking yeast. After that was taken care of, the three sat in silence as they ate their breakfast. Hector held back about half the eggs and bacon for Kelly.
Their third roommate joined them after a time. Isaac tried not to stare, but it was unusual to see Kelly as a female in the house. Her appearance changed from time to time, but right now she was petite, though a little taller than her usual, with blonde hair in shoulder length pigtails and a dusting of freckles. Odd as the thought seemed, given that Isaac saw her daily, she looked familiar. She also looked tired. That was pretty odd too.
“Morning guys.” she said. “You save some for me, Hector?”
Still baring his enormous grin, Hector loaded a pair of plates down with the remaining food and served it up to her. She started eating but, unusually for the shapeshifter, didn’t seem to have any enthusiasm for the food.
“Are you okay Kelly?” Isaac asked.
She took a moment to finish chewing before she answered. “Yeah. Just… I had kind of a weird night.”
There was something strange in her voice. Isaac’s impulse was to press her, find out what was wrong and protect her, but he bit it back. Kelly was more than capable of taking care of herself and didn’t appreciate it when he overstepped.
“I- um, I mean we- we went out to eat yesterday. Jim and I wanted to celebrate the no holds barred free for all on Friday, you know?”
Isaac didn’t remember anything more than their instructors’ explanation of the rules, minimal though they were, and Coach Achala speaking to them after it was over. By what they’d been told, that meant he hadn’t survived the fight and had had to be resurrected by Retcon. Apparently, her power let her ‘save’ a group of people, just like a video game, and restore them to that point. As long as she had the opportunity to use her power within an hour or so of the injury, she could undo anything. Even death.
“Well, the place got held up.” Kelly continued.
“Heh. That must’ve been a surprise for the poor guy.” Hector said with a smirk. “What’d you two do to him?”
Kelly shook her head. “Nothing. Me and Jim were afraid the bystanders might get hurt. We were waiting for him to leave before we jumped him, but…” her voice went vague for a moment, “But for some reason, we invited Don along. I don’t remember why. Maybe he just seemed like he needed cheering up? Anyway, Don showed up in the middle of the thing and took him down.”
“Was anyone harmed?” Jason asked.
“No, just the guy. Don’s gotten a lot better and he, the robber, he wasn’t Empowered. He was just some guy with a gun.” Kelly hesitated for a moment. “Jim and I, we both got killed during the training match earlier that day. My head exploded one time and I watched one of my best friends,” she nodded towards Hector, “get shot in front of me a while back. Violence isn’t exactly a new thing to me at this point, you know?”
Isaac nodded and the others made similar gestures of acknowledgement.
“But… that healer from Prime wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else who could’ve put the guy back together. Don didn’t kill him, but… he was hurt really bad. We had to stay there for hours while the cops took statements from everyone. They didn’t let us go till someone from San Francisco’s Stationary team showed up. I don’t think we’re in trouble or anything, but… it was really messed up. I couldn’t sleep last night. I just kept thinking, “That was what it was like, what we’re training for.” It wasn’t a fight. Don just saw a guy with a gun and put him down, hard.”
No one had anything to say about that. All Isaac could do was watch as she finished her breakfast, utterly lacking her normal cheer and energy.
“Are you just going to stand there?” Duncan asked.
Arms crossed, back straight and a look of contempt plastered on his face, Isaac didn’t bother to answer. Duncan Nightmare hit him again, and again. Isaac’s shield flared a little brighter, but that was his only reaction.
“Fuck.” Duncan swore as he stepped back. Rather than continue his ineffectual attack, he tried a different tactic. He could feel the threads, the little tendrils of fear, nervousness, anger and even outright hate from everyone watching the fight. It was easy to reach out and grab the ones nearest to him.
Simultaneously, the dozen Hector clones that were spread around the inside of the dome gasped and tried to move away from him, only to find themselves trapped against the gently curving stone wall. That was all it took, just a moment’s effort on Duncan’s part, and the normally collected young man went from vaguely nervous to genuinely frightened. Duncan could feel that same fear pouring into him, boosting his strength and toughness.
Isaac still hadn’t moved.
“C’mon big man. I know you’re all badass, but you can’t win if you won’t throw a damn punch.” Duncan mouthed off. The crude statements were more or less a reflex by now. He reached out a bit further, to all the trainees watching the challenge match, and gave a little tug. It was enough to make them jittery, nervous and restless, but not enough to cause panic. The last thing he wanted was to start a riot. Juggernaut would never let him hear the end of it.
The extra trickle of energy from the spectators joined the strength he was drawing from the frightened Hectors. Duncan really hoped Jason wasn’t out there. He normally skipped challenges entirely, forfeiting by default, and spent most of the day with Jenny Awesome if he could. It seemed like a safe bet but if Duncan was wrong… well, it could be a massacre.
Distracted by that worrying thought, Duncan missed the tiny change in stance that would have warned him that Isaac wouldn’t be standing still for much longer. The big man lunged, a movement made startlingly graceful by his time as an amateur boxer and honed by the Akido that Bruce had insisted he study. Before Duncan realized what was happening, a large hand had wrapped itself around his upper arm.
“Shit!” he cried out and kicked at Isaac’s knee.
His opponent still didn’t bother to dodge. With as much energy as he’d drawn in by now, Duncan should be somewhere between the middle and upper tier of Strong types. Isaac’s shield flared again, but that was it. He kicked out again, as quick as he could, but Isaac just twisted his knee a little to the side and let his foot pass by without making contact. Duncan looked up and saw him smirk, just before the big man casually threw him across the dome.
Not quite as casual as he seems, Duncan decided, as he slammed into the wall and fell to the ground between two Hectors. If he’d hit just a little to either side, he would have collided with one of the “bystanders” and probably killed him. That would have lost Isaac the match.
A little groggy from the impact, Duncan let out a string of obscenities as he picked himself up. Isaac was on him before he’d finished the motion. Duncan took a single blow to the face and collapsed to the ground. It had looked like a simple jab, but even William Power didn’t hit that hard. The world seemed to spin around him as Isaac picked him up, one handed, and pushed him against the wall. He was using his left hand to hold Duncan in place, a foot or so off the ground. Duncan could feel Isaac’s right hand covering his mouth, gripping his jaw just hard enough to be a reminder of just how much damage the Strong type could do to him right now.
Isaac leaned in, close enough that Duncan could feel the man’s breath on his ear, and spoke in a disturbingly calm and even tone. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about. I’d prefer to keep it private. Can you tune that fear effect enough to disable Hector without affecting me?
Duncan’s eyes went wide in surprise. He tried to nod but couldn’t move his head. Instead, he reached out to those threads again. Most of the class outside were still at the level of nervousness he’d left them with, maybe a little stronger. He couldn’t stop his power’s tendency to escalate, one of the reasons he was so rarely given a field assignment, but he could direct its stronger effects with relative ease. He took a mental grip on the lines of fear connecting him and Hector and pulled on them, hard.
Moments later, the dome was filled with panicked screaming as a dozen Hectors, suddenly terrified of him, ran to the far side of the dome.
“The other trainees, the ones watching, did you hit them the same way?” Isaac asked.
Duncan tried to speak and found that the man had loosened his grip enough to allow it.
“No. They’re getting a little nervous but they should be fine.” He answered.
“And I barely feel anything. So you do have better control over your power than you’ve been letting on.” Isaac was holding him at eye level. Given the difference in their heights, that left Duncan’s feet dangling. “Now, I’d like to have a private discussion with you, Duncan.”
He felt his eyes widen as the Strong type continued.
“You don’t make any sense to me, don’t quite fit.”
The world spun crazily as Isaac threw him once more, towards the center of the dome. Duncan sprawled as he hit the ground, cracking the stone. Again, Isaac was on him before he could get to his feet. Isaac placed a foot on his neck and leaned in. The weight of the man’s body wasn’t enough to choke him, not as strong as he was right now, but it was a clear message.
Duncan didn’t try to get up this time. “So what the fuck do you want?” he asked, drawing in strength from the panicky Hectors and the watching crowd.
Isaac crouched down, keeping his weight on Duncan’s throat. His windpipe held him easy enough, but it had to look pretty brutal to anyone watching. “I want answers.” he said, resting a single finger on Duncan’s left shoulder. “And I had better like them.” With no indication of effort, Isaac pushed down with the finger. Duncan felt, quite clearly, the moment when bone broke.
Isaac raised his bloody finger and stepped back. Duncan stopped screaming after a few moments and immediately rolled away from him. Once he had opened up a little distance, the boy used his good arm to get to his feet. A little shaky, but he was standing. There were plenty of nasty things you might say about Duncan, but no one could deny that the kid was tough.
“What the hell-” Duncan spat, “this kind of thing isn’t anywhere in your psych profile.”
Isaac narrowed his eyes. “And just what would you know about that?” he asked, even as he bent and scooped up a piece of the stone floor like it was nothing more than mud. A light squeeze and he had a handful of fragments the size of his thumb.
“Fear of helplessness, especially when combined with the thought of being unable to protect someone you see as weaker than yourself. Lifelong history of anger, usually channeled towards a productive end and a touch of Super Shock. Likely triggers are crowds, the smell of blood and the sound of metal tearing.” Duncan rattled off as he dodged the stones Isaac was throwing at him.
Isaac blinked. “That… was not exactly what I meant.” He paused his throwing in surprise. It gave Duncan just enough time to bend down, scoop up his own chunk of the ground, and fling it at Isaac. He felt the impact on his shield, not enough to be a danger on its own but a lot harder than Duncan’s earlier blows. “How do you know that, boy? It’s supposed to be privileged information.” Isaac had known that Duncan would get stronger the longer this match went on but he hadn’t expected him to get this strong. A little more and he’d have to be a lot more careful.
Duncan snorted. “Knock off the boy and kid stuff Isaac, I’m older than you.” He flung another rock but his aim was off. It missed. “And yeah, privileged. That means that Jessie won’t share it with anyone but another psyche professional. Specifically, one who’s responsible for helping you learn to cope.”
Isaac threw his last fragment at Duncan and, before he could recover from his dodge, rushed forward. The distraction was enough to let him get a grip on his opponent, by his uninjured arm, and hurl him at the combat dome’s wall. He still held back, but this time it was more out of fear that Duncan might breach the wall and end the match, rather than concern for injury.
Before Duncan could recover again, Isaac took two long steps to the side. If Duncan tried throwing anything at him again, he’d risk hitting one of the Hector clones that were behind him now.
“You’re saying you’re some kind of Healer. Duncan Nightmare. Our class’s most disruptive member. The bully. The one who mocks and insults anyone he sees as an outcast or a weakling.”
Duncan stood up, putting a little weight on his bad arm in the process. If it caused him any discomfort, Isaac couldn’t see any sign of it. “Yeah, pretty much. I’m the one no one likes.” He sped forward, ducked under the blow Isaac aimed at his head, and planted his shoulder into Isaac’s stomach. The big man staggered back, shocked by the power of the impact. “In fact, they dislike me so much that every time I pull that crap, someone steps in to stop me. They rally around the outcasts, support the weaklings and come together as a team.”
Isaac reached down and tried to pry loose the boy- the young looking trainee. His forcefield kept Duncan from getting a good grip on him but their strengths were a lot more evenly matched now. “You-” he grunted, “You mouthed off to Instructor Richard, challenged Coach Achala as soon as you could.” He managed to pry Duncan’s arms loose but couldn’t get him into a position for a throw or hold. His field’s lack of friction was working against him now.
Duncan tried to knee him and Isaac twisted to take it on his thigh. It felt about the same as a blow from a normal teenager, painful but not serious. Isaac hadn’t had any idea how strong Duncan could get. Was this his top end or…?
“Yep. And I got slapped down both times. Notice that no one gave either of them any crap after that?”
Isaac shifted his grip and got ahold of Duncan’s wrist. By now it was clear that Duncan’s power set included some kind of regeneration. Isaac didn’t try throwing him again, just kept that grip on his wrist and started punching him. Duncan didn’t have enough mobility to completely avoid the blows.
“You’re saying… what, that this is your job?” Isaac asked.
Duncan gave up trying to dodge or block and hunched over Isaac’s hand, trying desperately to pry loose Isaac’s hold while shielding himself from attack. It wasn’t working.
“Negative- negative role model.” Duncan stuttered. “Get trainees- do right thing- show them by doing wrong.”
Isaac let go and Duncan fell to his knees. Another punch and he collapsed to the ground. Isaac used his foot to roll him over, face down, and knelt by side. He took ahold of his hair, raised Duncan’s head off the ground, and asked him a question. “So why are you telling me all this. That sounds like the sort of thing you should be keeping to yourself.” He slammed his head into the ground, then raised it again.
“Thought- thought about- recruiting you for the job.” Duncan’s voice was slurred but still understandable. Isaac rammed him into the ground again. “Saw your act. Thought- thought you had- a talent for it.”
Isaac let him lie there for a moment. “What makes you so sure it’s an act?” he asked.
Duncan stirred, slightly, before answering. “I… I can sense it. Fear, anger, hate. Pretty much anything negative.” He raised his head and stared straight into Isaac’s eyes. “Not from you. Don’t know why, not exactly, but I know it’s not real. Just a show you’re putting on.”
Isaac leaned in and whispered into his ear, told him what he was planning. Duncan let out a disappointed sigh, nodded, then collapsed to the ground. He went back to slamming the Negative Role Model’s face into the now shattered ground. It was the silence that let him know Duncan was out. Hector, all of him, had stopped screaming in fear.
As the tone rang, signaling the end of the match, he stood up and stepped back. It took Isaac more work than normal to restore the look of contempt on his face.
Beneath the Tower
Melody Shift had to work at keeping herself alert while the others gave their reports. It wasn’t that the Directors of Stationary and Intervention had nothing of importance to say, simply nothing unexpected. The rate of violent Empowerments was higher than usual, unsurprising in the wake of the Abigail Werner incident. Most of the damage had been removed by now, though full repairs would take longer in most cases. Of course, that didn’t take Columbia into account. At least the power grid had enough redundancy to absorb the loss of a single solar plant, along with the nearby city.
“We finished identifying the bodies. Congressman Randall is dead.” said Cynthia Strong, the Director of Intervention.
The Director of Training’s head snapped up. This definitely qualified as unexpected. “That makes three. Three times, someone pushed for a Nemesis team to go after Monster and they died in an ‘accident.’ Two plane crashes and a car wreck, I think.”
Cynthia nodded stiffly. She’d supported the idea, this time, even though she hadn’t liked the Representative. Melody’s opposition had been just another point of contention between the two former classmates.
“Analysis has a tentative theory on the method of action he may have used.” said the Director of Stationary, Jill Smith. “The pilot, Theodore Plum, died of a massive heart attack. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume that led to the crash.” Melody and Cynthia both nodded at the information. “However, in the normal course of events, Plum wouldn’t have been flying. He was recalled from a vacation after the Interruption, the Werner incident. Further, the airline’s normal scheduling practice would have had a pilot named Christian Turam flying that plane. He was injured in an automobile collision about a month ago.”
“That’s suggestive, but-” Cynthia began.
“The other driver, Jorge Saucedo, was only on the road because of an unusual incident at a corner store.” Jill cut her off. “An unidentified robber murdered a customer, took a sandwich and a soda then destroyed their security system before leaving.”
Melody gave a disgusted sigh. “That definitely sounds like him.”
Jill went on, “Analysis recommends we continue to adhere to the current Monster Protocol.”
“So he gets to fucking murder anyone he wants, take whatever he wants, and we’re just going to let him? That’s our actual, official plan?” Cynthia asked. Her voice was somewhere between angry and disgusted.
“Yes.” Melody said.
Jill added, “Because if we leave him alone, he kills around half a dozen people a month. When we try to stop him, when anyone tries to stop him, he kills more. Sometimes it’s a lot more. Worse, we fail. Every. Single. Time. He’s been wandering around like some kind of murder hobo for decades and no one’s ever managed to so much as slow him down, much less beat him.” Jill’s voice didn’t hold any anger, or disgust. Melody was certain she felt them, they just didn’t show.
“Fine.” Cynthia said. “Let’s talk about your little project instead. I could use some good news for a change.”
Melody didn’t smile. What she’d ordered done to those trainees, what she knew would happen to most of them in time… It was nothing to smile about. Even so, she couldn’t stop the pride from leaking into her voice. “They’re exceeding expectations in every way. The inter-class training exercises required us to use the top ranks from the other classes as well as a few operatives. Anything less and it would have been a massacre.”
“Speaking of massacres,” Cynthia interrupted, “that thing with the Dust kid…”
“Is that still in the news cycle?” Melody grimaced. “I can’t believe the media’s making such an issue over it. If he’d been an off-duty cop, rather than an operative in training, no one would’ve thought twice about this.”
“That’s exactly the point.” Jill told her. “He’s not a police officer. He’s a Citadel operative, training or no. The people know which one’s more dangerous and something like this… well.”
“I think it’s the whole Interruption mess.” Cynthia said. “People have to know that we did the impossible, found a random Empowered girl less than an hour after she developed powers despite what amounted to no evidence. But… they also blame us because people died, a lot of them. I’m not even talking about Columbia. Between the people who lost control of their cars and the ones who had something like a pacemaker malfunction… well, there’s damn few that don’t at least know someone that was hurt. You mix it all up and it just makes sense that they’re looking for an excuse, something to latch onto.
Melody thought about it for a moment. “Very well. I already had a request from Support. They’re letting a reporter in with a camera crew. She’s supposed to do one of those human interest stories that remind everyone we’re still people. Anthony Greer wants me to let him interview a few trainees as well. I’ll make sure to include a few from my ‘project.’ Maybe Donald too, if he’s up for it.”
She looked down to check her notes, reminding herself where they’d been before Cynthia Strong derailed the conversation. “The special Class’s progress has been remarkable. The majority will be ready to graduate in two weeks. The rest can be folded in with some of the more standard classes for a little more polishing.”
“A month early?” Cynthia asked, at the same time Jill said, “That seems a little soon.”
Now Melody smiled. “This is my area of expertise and Bruce agrees. A few were arguably ready as soon as a month after they started training.”
“How many is a majority?” Cynthia wanted to know.
“Thirty three, possibly as many as thirty eight.” Melody answered. “It’ll depend on the next few group exercises and next week’s challenge matches.”
“Well then,” Cynthia said, “that means it’s time to finish arguing over who goes to each branch.”
“Excellent. I’ve been keeping an eye on the evaluations and there are two, maybe three, that could each handle the Stationary load for an entire city on their own.” Technically, Jill Smith didn’t have eyes. Her Empowerment had left her a floating silver orb. Her new body was only a little bigger than a basketball. Despite this, Melody could have sworn she saw the Director of Stationary’s eyes light up with avarice.
“If you’re talking about the Stasis kid, or Jenny Awesome, you’re nuts.” Cynthia told her. “They’ve got Intervention written all over them.”
Melody Shift, the Director of Training, settled back to watch them argue. It went on for some time.
The class watched as Director Shift stepped up to the podium. Some of them, the less observant, saw an old woman. Her hair was greying; she walked with obvious difficulty, leaning heavily on a cane and sometimes shuffling a bit. The rest… well, the rest saw a very different woman. She moved slowly but her eyes never rested. They settled on everyone in turn, seemed to weigh them in an instant, then moved on. When she reached the podium, she turned to face the trainees and began speaking without hesitation.
“There are a few things I’d like to discuss, before we move on to today’s lecture.” The room fell silent. “Over the next two weeks, some of you may encounter a woman by the name of Suzanne Nguyen. She’s a local reporter from San Francisco. The Citadel is allowing her, and a camera crew, access to the Hub for PR reasons. All this means to you, is that an eager young woman with a microphone may ask you a few questions. So long as they’re accompanied by a senior Citadel staff member, you are free to answer, or not, as you see fit. That said, there are a few areas where you must be discreet. A list should be in your mailboxes before the end of the lecture.” There came a short, excited babble of voices, people that liked the idea of being on camera. Here and there, a few trainees were visibly nervous about the idea.
“On a different note, I think congratulations are in order. A Citadel operative needs a certain mindset, a certain attitude. Above all else, they must be practical, willing to do what’s necessary. After that, decisive. Hesitation is death and haste leads to failure. Neither is acceptable. An operative must be creative, able to work effectively as part of a team or alone. Fear is acceptable, even a good thing, but an operative must not let it control them. All of that makes for a tall order, but we don’t take anyone unless we think they have it in them. Screening for that potential is a big part of why it takes six months for the average applicant to be accepted.” Her voice had grown lower as she spoke. Most of the trainees didn’t even notice they were leaning forward, paying rapt attention.
“Everyone in this room has reached that point. You’ve all shown that you have the attitude of a Citadel operative. The next thing we try to instill, is how best to utilize your powers. Some are difficult to control; a few are far more effective with the right supplementation. Regardless, you’re all well started on that path. I say started, because it’s a process that shouldn’t ever end. An operative is constantly trying to get stronger, whether by pushing themselves harder, gaining new capabilities or finding new ways to utilize what they already have. Anything else? That’s an operative that’s not likely to live long.” She stopped talking for a few moments and used that time to look over the class of trainees. Whatever she sought, she seemed to find it. The director gave a satisfied nod and resumed speaking.
“Having said that, I’m pleased to announce that your class’s expected graduation date is two weeks from today. I’ll be honest, a few of you won’t be ready in time. There’s no shame in that. As a whole and as individuals, you’ve made remarkable progress in very little time. Those who do not graduate on that day will join another class for additional training. I’ll be very surprised if they don’t manage to gain the skills they still require well within the standard four month period. The remaining time will be spent focusing on group exercises and some practical skills. Don’t be surprised if a few of your days run a bit longer than you might be accustomed to, in order to meet the new graduation date.” She smiled as the class cheered.
“With that said, there are two things I’d like to cover today, threat classification and Operative’s Privilege. I know that this isn’t the first time you’ve been spoken to about the classification, that it seems simple. Class five through one, a threat to a single life, a small group, a large group, a city or the nation. I trust that extinction level events are self-explanatory. But that description is vague, lacking. There’s a simple reason for that. Classification is meant only to serve as a rough guide. In most cases, a threat is ranked by the first operative on the scene.
“Its only purpose is to help Analysis and any other responding operatives establish a priority. In the event that more than one threat occurs simultaneously, it helps us decide how to prioritize our resources. It gives operatives on the scene an idea of how much collateral damage is acceptable. In short, if a solution costs fewer lives than the threat was likely to cost…” she trailed off as the class thought through the implications. Well, we call that a win. Not a good one, but a win.
“Operative’s Privilege. Operatives are given a great deal of latitude in how they handle a situation. Is it necessary to murder a newly Empowered individual, just to stop a threat they don’t have any intention or desire to cause? Is it better to risk that threat in order to spare that innocent Empowered? That’s something you’ll have to decide eventually. Analysis and your superiors will advise you, if possible, but in the end… that’s something you’ll have to determine for yourself. If you think the best method, the safest one, is to kill someone without hesitation, if you think that letting them live is worth the risk, the Citadel will back you. Operatives Privilege. A pretty way of describing one of the most terrible burdens imaginable.”
Melody Shift didn’t speak for several minutes. She simply relaxed her control, allowed the students to see the effects of living with that burden written on her face and her body. Pain. Regret. Exhaustion of the soul. All of that was there, but there was pride as well.
“Judge, jury and executioner. That is what it means to be an operative.”