Ester Reyes was happy. It was a simple thing but, for her, the realization seemed profound. There were plenty of reasons for that happiness. Outside, the sun was shining but it wasn’t too warm, a beautiful day. It been a long time since she could appreciate one of those.
Her son was graduating from the Citadel’s operative training program, quite an achievement and one she was justifiably proud of. She’d been worried at first. Citadel training was famous for its difficulty and movies always portrayed the operative course as especially grueling. Hector had told her, more than once, that while it was pretty tough it wasn’t anything like the movies made out to be. That hadn’t helped.
Hector had a perfectly understandable tendency to see her as someone in need of protection and it would have been entirely in character to… to withhold certain details. Her long period of… illness had seen to that. What he’d never seemed to understand was that if she’d actually been the sort of woman who needed such coddling, she never would have survived. Even so, it was good to see Achala Juggernaut in person.
Even if Hector hadn’t told her about how the man had stopped that horrible Chemo creature, she would’ve found him reassuring. From what Hector had said, ‘Coach’ Achala had been their primary instructor. He was responsible for all the physical parts of their training so it couldn’t have been too bad. She didn’t believe anyone with eyes that kind or an aura that was so… so serene could behave anything like the instructors did in the movies. She decided to pay a bit more attention to his speech, rather than her own musings.
“By this point, most of my students should be familiar my power. Anything that I set in motion cannot be stopped unless I will it.” Without pausing in his speech, the man removed a small rubber ball from the pocket of his white uniform and set it on the podium before him. “Listen when I tell you that I have set you in motion.” he told the graduates.
“You will go out, into the world, and you will do your duty. You will be a shield for the weak, a wall against the rising tide of chaos in the world. You will be a living Citadel with no other purpose than to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
“Eventually, there will come a time when you feel outmatched or overwhelmed. Though your brothers and sisters stand by your side, you will feel alone. When this time comes…”
He nudged the ball forward, let it fly out across the room. It was… eerie was the only word Ester could use to describe it. It flew perfectly straight, not dropping at all and not even very fast. It was completely, obviously unnatural. Her every instinct seemed to scream that it shouldn’t be moving that way.
“…I want you to remember that it was I who set you in motion, and it is not my will that you stop.”
In the silence that followed his speech, the man withdrew. Shortly, he was replaced by an older woman who walked a bit stiffly, relying on a cane to help her. She introduced herself as Director Melody Shift and began calling the graduates up one by one, both to congratulate them and give their first assignments as operatives.
Ester was surprised to find that she recognized the first one. “Isn’t that the girl from last week, the one that was in the news?” she asked.
“Jenny.” her friend supplied. Mary had been as fascinated by the story, and as impressed by the girl’s impassioned statements, as Ester. At least she had been then, now she seemed oddly disturbed by the young woman.
“Did you meet her during training? What’s she like?” Ester asked her son.
“Jenny? Sure, I met her. She was the top ranked fighter in our class.” Hector said. “Jason knows her better than me but…” he grinned, “She’s Awesome.”
Ester decided to change the subject. She’d found that Mary was oddly reluctant to discuss her own son and Ester didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. “Oh, is that Isaac?” Hector had spent a lot of time talking to her about his roommates, as well as his other friends among the trainees. “Do you think we’ll have time to meet, after the ceremony?”
“Sure,” Hector smiled, “I told everyone all about you. They probably can’t wait to see how you’re doing.” His face, his voice, everything about him changed and grew more serious. “Oh, and Mary? There’s someone else I’d like to introduce you to.”
Ester followed his gaze, saw that he was looking at the man who’d been speaking earlier, Achala Juggernaut.
Describing Empowerments was difficult at best. There were multiple systems that attempted to do so, but they were invariably bogged down in vagueness or exceptions. The Archetype Method, the one used by the Citadel, was a compromise. Its Types, usually named for a prominent figure who’d had a simple version of the power in question, described the effects of a power without addressing the mechanism.
Bruce Richards was, obviously, a Richards type, someone with the ability to make insights into a given field of interest that gave results beyond the reach of current technology. In the classic form, that meant inventions that seemed almost magical and couldn’t be reproduced by anyone else, at least not without a great deal of work.
What truly distinguished the Richards type, and the reason that they were almost universally designated as Support rather than Operations, was that while only their inventor could replicate them, anyone could use such devices. Worse, others could usually use them better. William Smith had come up with a process to make blades with a near monomolecular edge but he’d never be as dangerous with one as Drew Stasis.
Bruce Richards was the exception to this. His area of interest was, to put it simply, fighting. The only thing he’d ever invented was a personalized exercise routine, one that he’d never been able to properly explain but one that gave him the body of a world class athlete in exchange for fifteen minutes of grueling effort a day. More to the point, he could see the combat potential in any object, in any situation.
He looked down at his desk, at the three objects sitting on it. Each of them had been made, or at least modified, by a Support member at his request.
A directional speaker, roughly the size of a pen, had been made by Agatha Richards. It emitted something that wasn’t actually a sound wave but propagated in a similar manner. The ‘sound’ triggered a reaction in the brain of anyone that ‘heard’ it, similar to the delta wave rhythms that accompanied deep sleep.
She’d meant it to aid therapists treating Super Shock and sleep disorders. In his hands, it had let him backstab a woman with eyes that could see through stone and three hundred and sixty degree vision. It had also let him bring down the forcefield of the Citadel’s most powerful Strong type and keep several dozen extremely capable combatants from effectively coordinating their attacks.
The knife was functionally identical to the ones he’d ordered for Drew. He’d used it to cut down three people who were capable of crushing his skull with a single hand or ignoring a shotgun blast to the face in the space of seconds. Those two he understood, knew why they were here. They were the two items he’d needed to play the Monster role, the capstone of the final exercise he’d designed for Melody’s special project. The third item…
Bruce had some unusual habits. For example, with each applicant that the Citadel accepted for operative training, he spent around five minutes figuring out how to beat them. Not just kill, that was too simple, especially if he assumed the element of surprise. No, what he sought was the most efficient means of utterly neutralizing someone, the key to bypassing their strengths and exploiting their weaknesses.
This particular habit, or perhaps the accompanying preparations he inevitably incorporated into his combat rig, was why some of his colleagues had taken to calling him “Overkill” Richards. Admittedly, he found the nickname amusing, but he didn’t think it was deserved. The point of the activity wasn’t to be able to take down Citadel personnel, though traitors and mind control were both things that had to be kept in mind.
No, the point was practice. Bruce could reliably come up with a way to win even the most lopsided fights, but that didn’t guarantee he’d have the resources to take advantage of it. Encounters in the field were, more or less by definition, random. Citadel operatives made for an excellent sample of the Empowered population as a whole. If he was prepared to take them down, any of them, then there was an excellent chance he’d be ready for whatever the field threw at him.
The third item was one of those preparations, a chemical cocktail he’d had made by one of Support’s Richards types with a focus on neurochemistry. The accompanying notes said it was designed to adjust the levels of various chemical receptors and signaling agents in his brain, rendering him emotionally neutral for slightly over an hour without any long term side effects. There was only one problem.
Bruce Richards had no memory of requesting the drug. He didn’t know why he’d wanted it, who it was meant to counteract, nothing but when he’d ordered it: six months ago. Why would he want to strip himself of emotions, even temporarily? He’d reviewed the files of every Empowered to enter the Citadel in the last year and he couldn’t see how it would give him an advantage against any of them.
He decided to trust himself, pressed the injector to his arm. It felt like ice in his veins and his thoughts went slow and cloudy. Moments later, they cleared with a rush. Memories popped up like they’d been sitting just below the surface, waiting to be freed.
Jenny. She’d pranced around her school, worshipped like a goddess. They’d put her in a class with operatives all but guaranteed to be among the Citadel’s strongest. The report from William R. Power, her ability was totally out of her control. The group exercises, Samantha Soar taking a shot she had to know would miss; the Grim boy’s hesitation; Protean acting outside its norm; she was directly affecting the decisions of others. The incident with Donald Dust, that was far too convenient for her, couldn’t be a coincidence. Her power was getting smarter, planning ahead, broader in-
His train of thought abruptly cut off as the obvious finally hit him. He knew, if he’d been capable of it at the moment, he’d have felt a spike of terror.
They’d let her have access to that reporter. Jenny Awesome’s interview had been broadcast on Tuesday afternoon, just a local story. Wednesday, it’d been picked up by one of the nationals for rebroadcast. By now it was all over Viewtube, no way to contain it since Abigail Turing didn’t have her own power under control yet.
Jenny’s power, its influence, was loose in the world and it was getting stronger. It was probably too late to contain it. Killing her might still be possible but… the sheer waste of that…
Bruce Richards sat alone in his room, his power working frantically. He had slightly less than an hour to decide what to do about the most dangerous teenage girl in the country. Eventually, he raised his communicator and made a call.