Suzy Nguyen wasn’t a reporter because she wanted to expose corrupt politicians or uncover labor scandals. She had no desire to be famous. No, when it came right down to it, Suzy just liked knowing things. She was especially interested in finding out things about other people. That hunger for knowledge had always served her in good stead, but today…
“Holy crap.” she said, nearly breathless with wonder.
She’d just taken a step, a single step. It brought her from San Francisco to the Citadel Hub, somewhere between San Diego and LA, all thanks to the silver-blue glowing gate that step had taken her through.
“First time at the Hub?”
She turned and saw a familiar face, dressed in the all-white uniform of a Senior Operative. Dully, she nodded.
“I’m William Power. It’s good to meet you.”
Reflex took over and Suzy found herself smiling politely as she shook his hand and introduced herself. She had a sudden, mad impulse to tell him that she’d worn underwear with pictures of his face on them until she was twelve.
“Have you seen my crew?” she asked him instead. “They were supposed to meet me here but I don’t see them.”
His face went from friendly to guarded, so fast that it had to be an act. She considered trying to read him but… this was William Power.
“Sorry Miss Nguyen-”
“Suzy, please.” she corrected him.
“Suzy then.” he said with a smile. “Support had to change the plan at the last minute. I’m afraid we can’t give your crew access at this time.”
“So does that mean the story’s canceled?” she asked, confused. This whole thing had been the Citadel’s idea, so why were they…?
“No ma’am. I can’t say why, but it’s strictly a security issue with…” he trailed off and shrugged. “Let’s just say we couldn’t let you use your own camera. To make it up to you, we’re loaning you this.”
He held up some sort of headset; offering it to her. Curious, she accepted the device and examined it while he explained.
“It’s a modified version of something we use in the field. The communication functions on this one are disabled but it’ll record anything in your presence, visual and audio. Just hit that button to turn it off or on.”
She did so and a little green light came on.
“Seems simple enough.” she told him.
“There’s just one issue. The software involved is proprietary so we can’t let you have the raw data. Don’t worry though. We’ll send over the footage after we convert it to a more standard format.”
Normally, Suzy would’ve walked away at this point. However, her producer had told her, straight out, that this was going to be a softball piece. Goodwill from the Citadel was more important than anything interesting she might have been able to dig up.
“That should work just fine.” she told him, careful to keep her friendliest smile in place.
“Good.” he replied. “Now, would you like me to show you where you’ll be staying or-”
“Right to work, if that’s okay.” she interrupted.
He nodded and touched his communicator.
“Can I get a location on Juggernaut?” he asked, then transferred his attention back to her. “I thought we’d start with one of our more experienced Instructors.”
“Lead the way.” she told him.
Apparently, this Juggernaut’s office was near the top of the Tower. Suzy was a little disappointed that they took an elevator. Some part of Suzy, probably a remnant of her twelve year old self, had been hoping that her childhood idol would just pick her up and fly. Either way, they got there eventually. Suzy knocked on the door.
“Come in, please.” came the reply.
She did, only to pause when she saw that the Instructor, a slim, hairless Indian man, already had a visitor.
“Jason, it is true that multiple challenges are allowed. Even one such as this is technically valid.” said the Instructor. “But I’m not certain this is wise.”
Trying to appear as if she wasn’t paying attention, Suzy continued to listen in. She also made the little mental twist that activated her power.
“Sir, I would like to remind you that you yourself instructed me to stop holding back.”
Suzy didn’t hear the instructor’s response. Her empathy stretched out, reached William Power first. She got nothing from him. Not surprising, word around the office, at least among those that paid attention to the Empowered scene, was that he might be a Null type in addition to the rest. The trainee, Jason, must have been one as well. It was strange though… most Nulls were all or nothing. Suzy could feel little flickers of emotion coming off him: irritation, pride and something that might have been eagerness.
Next, Suzy directed her power at Instructor Juggernaut. If she could get a good idea of his emotional baseline, simple enough while he was engaged in something routine like arguing with one of his students, it’d give her an edge in her interview. Well, arguing might not be the right word. Jason seemed calm, if a bit too formal. Juggernaut’s expression was the perfect picture of serenity. Her power reached out to learn what he was really thinking and- PAIN!!!
She fell PAIN!!! to the floor, screaming. Suzy PAIN!!! couldn’t control her PAIN!!! own body. It was PAIN!!! flailing and trembling PAIN!!! Burning, stabbing, tearing, PAIN!!! it was like nothing she PAIN!!! could’ve imagined over every part of her PAIN!!! body at once. Mercifully, she blacked out in seconds.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” asked William Power. “There’s no reason you can’t take some more time to recover.”
Suzy shook her head. “No. I… I’m fine.” She noticed her hand shaking, just a bit, and clenched it into a fist until the trembling stopped. “It wasn’t even my pain but just the memory of what it felt like…” She looked down at her hands. “How can he be so calm? How can he even live like that?”
William Power was silent for a moment. When he answered, his voice was as solemn as anything she’d ever heard.
“Miss Nguyen, I’m over a hundred years old. I’ve spent the vast majority of that time as a soldier or a Citadel Operative. Please keep that in mind when I say this. Achala Juggernaut is easily the strongest man I’ve ever met.”
Three seconds. That was Suzy’s best guess as to how long she’d shared his pain. That was easily the worst experience of her life. He lived with it. She tried to imagine what that must be like, couldn’t do it. She gave a short, quick nod.
“I was at the incident when he was… injured, and I was exposed too. Achala was the one who killed the Empowered responsible. Thanks to that, my power set let me recover after less than a minute. Everyone else…”
He dropped his eyes rather than go on. She went sick when she realized the implication.
“How- how many…” She couldn’t finish the question.
“Thousands. Most died or took their own lives. So far as I know, there’re only a few dozen left.”
“This is… It’s just incredible. I’d still like to finish the interview but I don’t think it’d be safe. If I’m in the same room… my power…”
He sighed. “You really should’ve told us you were an empath, ma’am. I knew you were Empowered but if I’d realized your actual ability, well, this never would’ve happened.”
“There’s a reason I’m not registered, Operative.” She glared at him. “I’d never get another interview if it came out.”
“That’s your right, ma’am.” The glare didn’t seem to have much effect on him. “Though I would suggest you don’t use your ability again. Achala’s condition is unique but there’s more than a few minds here it wouldn’t be safe for you to touch.”
Still haunted by that three seconds, Suzy nodded without hesitation.
“Good. If you’re willing to volunteer a little about how your power works, we can probably get you that interview.” He shrugged. “Worst case scenario, we’ll set you up with a video conference. In the mean-time, would you like to move on to the next subject?”
“Yes, yes I would.” she said.
Hector was waiting outside his class’s training room, sending in a new body every now and again. He straightened up when he saw William Power approaching, along with an Asian woman wearing civilian clothes and a tactical headset in active mode. Maybe this was that reporter Director Shift had mentioned? He decided to find out.
“Hey Billy! Ma’am. What’s up?”
Hector was caught completely off guard by his greeting’s effect.
“My name is Senior Operative William Power. This is Miss Suzanne Nguyen. In the future, Trainee, you will address your superiors with the appropriate respect or you’ll learn just why they’re your superior. Understood?”
“What?” Hector was genuinely shocked, a rare thing for the duplicator. “I… I’m sorry sir. You… you told me to call you that. When we were looking for Abby, don’t you remember?” Hector asked, his voice quiet.
Just like that, Power’s visible irritation disappeared. It was replaced by a look of startled comprehension. “Sorry kid. That wasn’t me.” Before Hector could ask, he explained. “You worked with William R. Power, right?”
“I’m William L. Power.” he said with an expectant grin. Before Hector could ask the obvious question, he explained. “Left and Right.”
Hector gaped for a moment. No one could possibly have given names like those to twins, so… “Some kind of clones… or?”
“Nope.” said the other William Power, grin still in place. “I assume you know my primary power is regeneration?”
“Take a look at this and tell me what you think.” He leaned in, putting his forehead directly in front of Hector’s face.
It took him a moment to recognize what he was looking for, but once he did it was unmistakable. “The left side of your face… it’s normal. But the right, there’s no imperfections. The scalp line is smoother, pores are more even… what…?”
William- Hector decided to try thinking of him as Left. It was less confusing. Left stood back up, his grin expanding to a broad smile.
“I’d be happy to explain but it’s technically a violation of the National Security Act.”
Hector saw the woman’s eyes twitch. He figured that would be a full on flabbergasted jaw drop in most people so yeah, definitely the reporter.
“Suzanne,” Left said, turning back to face her, “why don’t you head on in. Hector deserves the full story but, while I trust you, I’m not allowed to use my own discretion in this sort of thing. I trust you’ll keep what you’ve heard so far to yourself?”
She gave a silent nod of assent and entered the training room.
Hector started to speak but Left held up a hand, silencing him.
“Wait a moment. She claims to be an empath but her light’s a little too bright for that to be it. Her light’s not bright enough to affect me and your file says that you’re functionally immune to all but the best telepaths but, even so…”
They waited in silence for a few moments.
“It should be okay, sir. She looks pretty distracted.” Hector said, eventually.
“Call me Will. You cut the response time on a potential extinction event in half. You’ve more than earned that.”
“Thank you, Will. I… I, um.” Hector didn’t really know what to say. He had so many questions.
Will gave him a conspiratorial smile. “Hang on. I’ll give you the quick version and then you can ask whatever you want, at least until she gets through in there.”
Hector gave a quick nod, still a little nervous.
“We say brother, but that’s just short hand. A while back, I got taken over when we were going after the Professor. Between me and his ‘students,’ the rest of Prime was having some trouble. They called in Gatekeeper and he stopped me, then took out the whole area.”
He thought it over for a moment. Will might’ve said ‘whatever you want’ but Hector knew there were still plenty of things he was better off not knowing yet. “You said he stopped you. Do you mean… he cut you in half?”
Will nodded and used a finger to draw an imaginary line down his face, between his eyes. “He knew how strong my regeneration is, figured I’d survive. What no one expected was that both sides would recover completely.”
“Wow.” was all Hector could say at first. “Were there any after effects, missing memories? How big a piece does it take to make another you? Are there any more William Powers out there?” Breathless, he had to stop.
Will gave a little chuckle. “A few, but a lot less than conventional medicine would predict. A Richard’s type who specializes in these types of things thinks a sizable portion of the nervous system needs to be involved, at least a third or so and no. There’ve only ever been a few Empowered that could handle me if I went rogue, mental control or otherwise. No one likes the idea of an army of mes running around.”
Hector thought about that, the difference that a Citadel made up of nothing but its most famous member could make. “Was there a specific reason for concern or is it just fear? A hundred years of service should buy some trust.”
The Senior Operative visibly hesitated before answering. “Sorry, that one I can’t tell you.”
He nodded. That was actually better than being told that the country was in the mess it was because of sheer hesitation, but not by much. “Looks like she’s had just about enough. Can I ask one more before we’re interrupted?” Hector asked.
“You said something about Ms. Nguyen’s light not being bright?”
“Smart.” Will snorted. “No wonder my brother liked you so much. That’s a power I generally keep under my shirt but, like I said, you’ve more than earned it. I’ve got a perception ability, seeing power levels. I can’t tell exactly what someone’s Empowerment is without seeing it in action, but I can tell how… intense it is. It’s useful to predict whether or not they’ll be able to get through my Null ability. In a few cases, I can get a little bit about the… nature- I guess?” He shrugged. “I can spot a weird power, basically.”
“She’s coming out.” Hector interrupted, just as Suzanne Nguyen staggered through the training room’s double doors. Her eyes were wet with unshed tears, nausea written all over her face. She gagged but didn’t throw up.
“What the fuck are you doing to them?” she demanded.
Suzy walked into the room, expecting to see an example of ‘basic skills training.’ Obviously, she would’ve rather stayed to hear the far more interesting story of William Power and his not-a-clone. The young reporter considered herself well informed, even by the standards of her profession, but she’d never heard so much as a hint about something like this.
Sadly, she knew her producer’s priorities and, more importantly, she suspected that the ‘all necessary measures’ line in that waiver she’d signed would probably stretch to include the mysterious disappearance of a nosy reporter who knew one too many of the Citadel’s secrets. It was disturbingly easy to imagine. So sorry, but the poor girl stepped into one of our magical glowing gate-thingies and was never seen again.
She considered using her ability. Power was immune but that kid probably wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be as good as listening in but it was better than nothing. Probably sa- That thought was cut off as she remembered the last time she’d used her power. She shuddered. No. Maybe not ever again.
Determined to derail that particular train of thought, Suzy examined her surroundings. The training room was similar to an ordinary, if oversized, high school gymnasium. It had a high ceiling, off-white walls, hardwood floors and an oval shaped rubber track running along the perimeter. In the nearest third, there were five rows, each with about eight men and women wearing trainee’s black. Walking up and down the rows was a woman in the grey uniform and traditional mask of a Healer. She seemed to be supervising CPR classes.
The trainees were all bent over dummies, each dressed in the same all black uniform, pressing on their chests or breathing into their mouths. One of the trainees was glowing bright orange, another was silver-white. More than a few were physically inhuman, a human-snake hybrid with wings, a skeletally thin, chalk white monstrosity. Distracted by the obvious signs of Empowerment, Suzy didn’t recognize the true nature of the dummies.
Looking past that remarkable assemblage, Suzy saw something still more incredible. In the middle of the gym, there was a dragon. It was immense, with red scales, a yellow underbelly and bat-like wings. Suzy was struck by its resemblance to that one in that movie. Best of all, she was pretty sure it was trying to perform CPR as well. The great beast was hunched over a dummy, resting one clawed finger on its chest. Suzy watched it lean forward, lowering its head and opening its mouth. Her own mouth opened slightly in wonder as it pursed its lips, completely covering the dummy’s lifelike face. She couldn’t believe, there was just no way that that could work…
There came a brief, bright flash of red-orange light and the dragon raised its head. When it looked down at the dummy and the scorched ruin that used to be its head, the expression of disappointment on its reptilian face was surprisingly clear.
She fought down a fit of giggles. One does not laugh at a dragon. If that wasn’t already a rule, it should be.
This wasn’t the first time that had happened, judging by the practiced ease with which the dragon scooped up the ruined CPR training tool. Even better indicators were the many scorched sections of floor that surrounded the dragon’s area, as well as the sheer size of the pile of discarded, damaged mannequins the dragon was moving towards. The pile, almost as tall as her, was at the furthest end of the room. Suzy could make out a few more burnt dummies, but the most common defect seemed to be crushed chests.
It made sense. Suzy knew that something like half of the Citadel’s operatives were Strong types of one flavor or another. They were just too common for it to be any other way. Assuming those dummies were about as resilient as a typical human, this was probably necessary training, maybe even vital.
Something drew Suzy’s attention back to the trainees nearest to her. What had it been? After a moment, it happened again. One of the dummies moved.
A large black man, the one with the silvery glow, pushed down too hard. She saw the- the dummy’s chest collapse, heard a groan of pain. Suzy looked back at the pile, just as the dragon tossed the- the- tossed it onto the top. Almost against her will- for once she didn’t want to know- she examined the… the mound, more closely. They were moving. Some of the… some of them were still alive.
Horrified, sick to her stomach, Suzy Nguyen staggered back, turned, and practically ran through the doors.
In the room she left the behind, the Healer addressed her class.
“Good job people, but keep it up. Strong types, this is your best opportunity to practice precision without killing a teammate. Remember, even a normal person is likely to snap a rib or two when they’re doing chest compressions, especially if they make a mistake. For those of you without super strength, the goal is to do this for an hour. After that, no one short of Retcon herself can help them and she has to use her power before the injury takes place to do any good.”
Suzanne Nguyen staggered through the training room’s double doors. Her eyes were wet with unshed tears. She could feel the nausea, written all over her face. She gagged but managed not to throw up.
“What the fuck are you doing to them?” she demanded.
The Hispanic trainee turned away from William Power to answer her.
“Basic First Aid ma’am.” His voice and face were pleasantly polite, as if… as if that weren’t happening on the other side of the doors. “Oh, excuse me, Kerry needs another replacement.” He stepped around her and… Wait.
He was still there, next to William Power. What…?
“Duplicator?” she asked.
Still polite, he nodded. “Yes ma’am. Hector Hive.”
She looked back, through doors that were still open from his passage. “The… dummies, they’re all you?”
He nodded again. His manner was starting to edge out of polite, more like the way you’d treat someone who was- Suzy made the conscious decision not to be hysterical, to calm down. She took a few deep breaths, then resumed speaking.
“Duplicates or no, we can’t show that on the air. Would it be alright if I asked you a few questions instead?”
This time, her voice was that of a professional, calm, cool, collected and free from that little edge of hysteria that was still shrieking, deep down inside of her. She was certain of that because she was being very careful to make sure it stayed that way.
She’d directed the question to Hector, but William Power answered first. “Not a problem Miss Nguyen. Please consider the trainee at your disposal.”
“Of course,” Hector added, “But there’s a few things I can’t talk about and a few things, well, a few thing I just won’t.”
Suzy gave him a reassuring smile. Considering the circumstances, it probably wasn’t one of her best. Although, considering the circumstances further, she was a little proud she’d manage to do it at all.
“Naturally. That won’t be a problem Hector. This’ll be what we call a friendly interview. It just means that if there’s anything you don’t want to discuss, if you aren’t comfortable, for whatever reason, just speak up and I’ll avoid the subject.”
Instead of agreeing right away, he stopped to think it over. If she was any kind of judge of character, and even without using her power she was a very good one, he was deciding in advance what he would or would not discuss.
“Okay, let’s do it.” he told her, eventually.
She gave him another smile, then “Oh! Um, sorry if this steps on your toes or anything, but…. for my own peace of mind, can you feel what your duplicates are going through?”
He grinned. “Technically, I’m a duplicate too.”
“Wow, really?” she asked. “I had no idea.”
Hector shrugged. “At this point, I’m not even sure if the original me is still around. But yeah, to answer your question, I feel what all my bodies do, sort of.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. It had taken her maybe six months to learn that, worth every minute.
“I used to think that my bodies shared thoughts, formed a group mind that was outside of all of them.” he said. “But, a little while back, I realized it was actually memories. Every one of me remembers what all the rest of me is doing, more or less in real time.”
“I’m not sure I see the difference.” she admitted, cocking her head to the side in puzzlement. She’d have to be careful to avoid things like that during the actual interview. It might mess up the video from her borrowed headset.
“It’s subtle, but I think it’s why I can go through something like that and it’s only… unpleasant, rather than horrific. Pain is bad, right?”
She laughed, nodding. “Uh huh.”
“So is fear, embarrassment and so on. But the memory of pain, or fear or whatever, that’s not quite as big a deal.” he grinned.
“How did you ever manage to figure out something so abstract?” she asked.
“Have you ever been so pissed at someone that you didn’t stop to think about the consequences, you just attacked?”
“Sure. I think everyone’s been there once or twice.” Suzy answered.
“Well, a while back, one of the other trainees said something pretty fuc- er, pretty messed up. I lost it and went for him without thinking. Thing was though, even though there were lots of mes there, it was only the me he said that to that got angry enough to attack. The other mes were just really, really annoyed.”
“Okay, I understand what you’re describing, but I don’t get how-”
“See, that me was angrier!” Hector went on, eagerly. “I did some research and it turns out, a big part of emotion is chemical. Hormones and all that.” He shrugged.
“I’m not far enough along in my degrees to follow all the details, but I got the gist. The rest of me didn’t get the chemicals, so didn’t react as strongly. If I was really a hive mind, like I always thought, it wouldn’t work that way. I’d either be angry or not, instead of it varying between mes.”
The difference still seemed largely irrelevant to her. She latched onto the part that had made sense, instead. “So this other boy, the one you attacked, was he alright?”
Hector’s face went from a cocky grin to eerily flat. “He was fine, just some bruises.” His voice was just as lacking in expression.
“Did you get in trouble? I know in Army Basic you’d have been set back a few weeks, maybe even expelled.”
“Yeah, they made me help train the others.” he said, nodding towards the double doors.
She… she didn’t even know what to say to that. It must’ve shown on her face, because Hector started to reassure her.
“It’s not so bad.” He shrugged. “I never would’ve agreed to it otherwise, but it was this or get kicked out. To tell the truth, I’m actually kind of grateful. I’ve ended up learning a lot that I just wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“Well,” she said, a little numb, “I hope you learned your lesson. Next time you don’t like what somebody has to say, there’s better ways to handle it than hitting them.”
Hector didn’t answer at first, his face blank but for a tiny little hint of amusement. “I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am.” That cocky grin slowly started creeping back.
Suzy really wished she dared to use her power. Without it, she had no idea what was going on around here.
The Sparring Field
The next day’s first interview was scheduled for more than an hour before dawn. Suzy didn’t like starting so early. Who would? But William had promised her that, if she met with this woman from Support early enough, she’d get to see something spectacular.
Suzy looked around, confused. It was dark enough that she couldn’t see very well but still… This training ground, the ‘Sparring Field,’ seemed utterly featureless. It was just a flat plain of dirt and sand, with a few tufts of grass and the occasional bush. Not wanting to give up but unsure just what she should do, Suzy took to walking in slowly expanding circles.
After a time, something changed. She saw a light in the distance, one she was sure hadn’t been there before. Hopeful, Suzy began making her way towards it as fast as she could without running. Closer, the light proved to be several floodlights attached to a tower. Not the great stone Tower that had caused this base to be called the Hub. This one was about a hundred feet from its base to the covered platform at the top. It was almost like a kid’s tree house, a wide pillar of stone with steps spiraling up to the top. There was someone on the platform, waving at her. She shoved down a perfectly natural fear of heights and went up to meet them.
“Hi, I’m Annie Molder.” said the unfamiliar woman, extending a hand.
Still a little breathless from the stairs, Suzy returned the greeting while examining her as best she could without her power. Annie was a plump woman, a little shorter than average. Her hair and skin both showed the effects of too much sun. Her smile was infectious and showed far too much cheer and energy for this time of the morning. Lastly, she wore the black pants and grey shirt of Citadel Support and, given the name, was likely Empowered.
“So, Suzanne, do you know if there’s something wrong with your headset?” the woman asked. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last twenty minutes. Much longer and you would’ve missed the show.”
Puzzled, Suzy removed the item in question and offered it up for Annie’s inspection.
“Mr. Power- I mean, Sr. Operative Power told me all it could do was record.” she said.
“Oh, um… sorry about that.” Annie’s face was too heavily tanned for it to show well, but Suzy was sure she was blushing. “If I’d realized, I’d have met you at the road and led you in.”
Obviously she would’ve preferred to skip all that wandering around in the dark. Still, faced with the other woman’s embarrassment, Suzy couldn’t hold it against her.
“Don’t worry about it Ms. Molder. A little exercise is probably good for me.” A thought occurred to her. “Oh, is that right? I’ve only ever spoken with operatives and trainees so…”
Back on familiar ground, Annie smiled. “Mr. or Ms. works fine. The rest of us don’t follow operative tradition. But you can call me Annie, of course.”
Suzy smiled back making it as warm as she could.
“Thanks Annie, and please, call me Suzy.” Time to get back on track. There was a reason she was here. “So, can I ask what it is that I’m supposed to be seeing?”
Annie’s expression went from friendly to mischievous.
“Well Suzy, Director Greer thought you might like to see our combat training rooms.”
“Well sure, that sounds like it could be pretty interesting. Is that why this is called the Sparring Field? Are there underground training rooms with hologram simulators or something?” Woops. Suzy was normally more disciplined with her questions, careful to guide the conversation and keep control of the interview. Maybe it was the time? No, best not to lie to herself. Suzy had been off her game since she got here.
“I don’t know about interesting. They’re pretty much featureless domes, but I do think this part is pretty cool.” Annie told her.
What happened next shouldn’t have been silent. Suzy looked over the field in awe as dozens, maybe even hundreds of the domes Annie had mentioned rose from the ground. It was a slow process, maybe thirty minutes from start to finish. Suzy might have been bored if it weren’t for the sheer scale of it.
“How… are you the one doing that?” she asked.
Annie nodded, a faint look of concentration on her face. “Yep, that’s my power. I can shape stone and earth, make stuff out of em.”
Suzy took a moment to process that, still stuck on the possibilities. “That’s incredible. Why… why haven’t I ever heard of you? You should be one of the most famous Empowered in the country. I mean, if you can do this in half an hour…”
“Nope. It’s not quite as useful as you’re thinking. All this,” Annie waved her hand at the massive collection of structures, “is only temporary. Right now it’s stronger and lighter than steel. And yeah, I could build a high rise or whatever without much trouble. But as soon as I fall asleep or leave the area it’ll all crumble.”
“I guess that means you won’t be revolutionizing the construction industry over night.” Suzy said.
“Nope.” Annie sighed. “I can help out in emergencies, reinforce damaged structures, provide temporary shelter and stuff, but that’s about my limit.”
Suzy found herself nodding along. “And you can’t do much in a combat situation because the effect is too slow.”
Annie didn’t answer right away. “Maybe. I… I have to watch the fight training, make sure the domes don’t collapse in the middle of a match, fix any damage they take, that sort of thing. I’ve seen kids with powers a lot less dangerous than mine come through here. You might recognize a few of their names. For that matter, the Army would probably love to have me.”
Empathy or no, Suzy could hear the unspoken ‘but.’ She stayed silent, hoping Annie would volunteer the rest.
“I could never do what they do. Risking my life…” Annie shook her head. “Just the idea, it makes my blood run cold. I know what the operatives do is important. All you have to do is take a look at the Battlegrounds to see that, or worse: Winter.”
She looked down and Suzy could see traces of tears in her eyes.
“I’m proud of what I do, helping them train, making it safer and more effective, but it’s horrifying. Most of them, they’re just kids. We get a few that are older, but the average age of a trainee is just nineteen. I help kids learn to fight, just so they can go out and risk their lives to protect the rest of us. Every day of my life, I thank God that they’re stronger than me.” Her next words were very quiet. Suzy wasn’t sure she’d been meant to hear them.
“Then I ask him to forgive me.”
Beneath the Tower
For once, Suzy hadn’t needed to spend the day running all over the base tracking down her interview subjects. Instead, she’d spent her time in this pleasantly air conditioned room in one of the Tower’s sublevels as one trainee after another knocked on her door to be interviewed. It made for a nice change. Another difference, this was the first day without any surprises. Given the nature of some of those surprises, that made for a very nice change indeed.
The trainees had been pretty much what she’d expected as well. Most of them were fairly young. They were cheerful and bright, eager to make a difference. Suzy didn’t cover the Empowered stories, not normally, but she paid attention. Something like half of the Citadel’s operatives didn’t make it through their first year. That was split, more or less evenly, between physical impairment and ‘psychological distress.’ Talking to those smiling young men and women, not one of whom had seemed to understand what they were in for…
Suzy had a great deal of sympathy for Annabelle Molder.
There came a tapping, a gentle knocking on the door.
“Come in.” she cried.
It took an effort to suppress a sigh when she saw her latest subject. The broad, happy smile, the way she seemed almost to bounce when she walked, it was just more of the same. She tuned out the girl’s greeting, preparing to do the interview on autopilot. Then, Suzy saw something in her eyes. Determination? No, not just that… This was the Citadel. Even the brightest eyed raw recruits had that. But… there was something there, a depth and weight that… Suddenly, the danger didn’t seem to matter quite so much. Suzy made that little mental twist and focused on the girl in front of her.
“Well young lady, do you know why you’re here?” Suzy asked.
For a brief time, no more than a fraction of a second, she felt guilt, fear, isolation, hopelessness and helplessness. It all added up to a tangled mess that she couldn’t sort through. Easier to just call it misery. For that fraction of a second, Suzy was horrified. In its own way, it was every bit as bad as Achala Juggernaut’s living hell. Then it was gone.
“Because of the mess poor Donald’s in.” the girl answered.
Something very different took its place.
“That’s… not exactly what I meant.”
On the surface, there was happiness.
The trainee gave a short laugh, too self-aware to be called a giggle.
“No, but it’s true. Public opinion’s dragging him through the mud and someone had the idea to bring you in and take everyone’s mind off him, change the narrative.”
Beneath the happiness was a host of other things, responsibility, compassion and… determination wasn’t quite the right word. That was like calling the Pacific wet: true, but it didn’t come close to telling the whole story.
“I’m not saying you’re right, but if you were… It sounds like you don’t agree with the plan.” Suzy observed.
That brilliant smile went away as she shook her head, not faded, just set aside for the moment.
“It’d probably work, but I don’t think it’s for the best.” she said.
“Then what should be done? What is it that brought you here?” Suzy asked.
And then the girl told her. She’d probably rehearsed it in her head but it lacked the polish of a professional speech. Despite that, or because of it, her sincerity was obvious. Suzy didn’t need her power to be certain of that.
“I understand why people might be afraid, be resentful of the Citadel. The Interruption was a catastrophe. I don’t know the exact death toll. The last estimate I heard put it at more than four hundred thousand. Almost worse than that is the damage it did to society. Things we take for granted, cell phones, communicators and televisions, they failed us. Other things, the ones we depend on every day, cars, planes and even something as simple as a light bulb…
“Well, for a little bit, it seemed like all our tools turned against us. All of that, because a high school student got frustrated during a computer science class? That’s terrifying, even if no one wants to admit it. I’ve seen news reports that praised the Citadel for its rapid response, read articles about a mother who rescued her children from a fire caused by a power surge… all kinds of stuff. Inspirational stuff, and true, but that doesn’t make the fear go away.”
Suzy started to say something, stopped. She’d kept her power focused long enough. It wasn’t just giving her emotion or sensations now. She was getting the context.
“It’s natural enough for people to blame the Citadel for that fear, to resent us. After all, it’s our job to stop this sort of thing, to protect you. But using something like this to punish the Citadel… It won’t work. That won’t make the fear go away any more than ‘changing the narrative.’
“We need to remember something. No one understands much about Empowerment, but one of the few things we do know is that emotional states effect the outcome. This kind of widespread fear and resentment? It won’t lead to anything good.”
Without making a conscious decision, Suzy found herself asking a question. “What should we do?”
The girl fully expected to die. Suzy could feel it running through her. It wasn’t a death wish. She just knew what happened to almost every operative that stayed in the field long enough. That happiness, that beautiful, vibrant joy the girl radiated… It wasn’t a false shell or a way to hide from reality. It was a deliberate choice. The girl had weighed her options and decided that the good she could do was worth her life. That joy… it was the feeling of a woman who had found a worthy cause and devoted her life to it without reservation.
“We can’t bury our fear. We have to pull it into the open and deal with it. We lost a city when a solar plant blew. That’s a tragedy. So what can we do to make sure it never happens again? Can the other plants be moved to safer locations, maybe underground? What if we switched to safer power sources? Wind, Empowered and photo generated electricity aren’t effective enough to fully replace solar, but can they reduce our reliance on it?
“More than that, the Interruption showed us where we’re weak. We can use that to improve, to get stronger, ready for next time. Cities can be redesigned so we’re not dependent on fallible autos. Emergency services can be decentralized. I don’t know what else. I’m just one person and there’s a limit to what I can do.
“But you, you’re a nation. I sincerely believe that if you act together, there’s nothing you can’t do. Write your congressman, your governor and your city council. Ask your questions and make suggestions.”
Suzy stared, in awe at what she’d just heard and what she could still feel. Without warning, that implacable determination was… not gone, any more than a sword vanishes when it’s sheathed, but it was replaced again by that terrible joy. The girl was smiling again.
“And please, Richard Day is paralyzed. No one’s happy about that. But he wasn’t stealing bread to feed his starving family. Richard Day is a meth addict who carried a gun into a restaurant full of innocent families so he could score. Donald Dust was there to share a meal with friends. He saw people in danger so he protected them. He’s still a trainee, but that’s what an operative is for. If you feel bad for Mr. Day, don’t make yourself feel better by attacking Don. Donate money to a rehabilitation center or volunteer at a clinic.
“Donald feels really bad about this, even though he did the right thing. That’s a distraction and he can’t afford to be distracted the next time people need his help.”
Slowly, very slowly and as calmly as she could, Suzanne Nguyen reached up and turned off her headset.
“I… I think I’ve got what I need from you.”
The girl nodded, then rose to leave. Just before her hand touched the door’s handle, Suzanne spoke up again.
“Thank you. For what you said… thank you for that.”
She turned back to face Suzy. “Do you think it’ll help?”
When she answered, Suzy wasn’t entirely sure if she was talking about what she’d heard or what she’d felt. The two had mixed together in her head until… “I think it may have been one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”f
The girl grinned and Suzy felt another brief spike of that awful misery. She didn’t know what it meant. Maybe some sort of lingering reaction to Achala Juggernaut? Perhaps there was some other Citadel member nearby, one in truly dire need of therapy? With a mental shrug, she turned off her power and forgot about it.
“Awesome.” the girl said, smiling brighter than ever.