Robert Grave took a moment to review his notes one last time, then looked up at his subordinates. To put it simply, he was not happy.
“Operative Hector, Operative Jason, have you read the incident reports?” They both nodded. “Anything you want to add?”
“No sir.” Hector said, utterly lacking his usual cocky grin. Jason just shook his head.
“Then let me. Hector,” he said, focusing on the young man, “you made the decision to move in on Reaper’s men with minimal police support.”
“Well within your purview, both as an operative and an analyst, but you also neglected to inform myself or Jason. Why?”
Hector raised his right hand, stopping before it was more than halfway to his neck. He’d been absently scratching at the cut there since he arrived. “I…” He took a deep breath and visibly gathered his nerve. They boy had been badly shaken by the previous day. “The info came from one of Reaper’s men, brought in after a seemingly spontaneous attack on a citizen.”
“The one you were on a date with last night.” Rob said, a bit coldly. That wasn’t exactly wrong, but it was a definite grey area.
“Yes, Elizabeth Potts, Liz.” Hector shook his head. “The information was rated… I rated the information as being honest but likely incomplete. He was just a thug, no reason to think Reaper was in the habit of confiding in him. I thought the most likely problem would be more men than expected, or maybe better weapons. I knew… I knew running into the rest of the Four was possible but…” He looked down and to the right, not meeting Rob’s eyes.
“You thought you could handle them.” Rob’s voice was flat.
Hector’s hand wandered down to the duffel on his right. “Yes sir. I… I didn’t have much on Taker; he was down as a Strong type with an unknown extra. I knew Starve was a directed Null type and I had the Empowered registration exam report for Joseph Stein, Viral. I was…” Hector let out a little breath, not quite a sigh. “I was confident I could handle them if I had to.” He raised his eyes a little when he was done.
Rob held his gaze for a moment. “Obviously, you were wrong. What did you miss?”
“Stein. His previous record was less than a dozen people but… there was a bad power interaction. I… I didn’t realize I was vulnerable until it was almost too late. As soon as I spotted him… I froze, didn’t want to attract his attention or set him off. When I thought he was about to give me an order, I tried to kill myself to make sure he couldn’t turn me against the city.”
If he was breathing for anything more than speech at the moment, Rob would’ve let out a sigh at that. The boy still hadn’t realized. Should he just tell him, or… “Hector- no, Analyst Hive, what would your threat be if you went on a rampage?”
“At least two, one if I…” his gaze dropped down to the duffel again.
“Two.” The reply was immediate and… not consistent with the other young man’s file. He should’ve been a three, a nasty three, but that was it. Was Hector just exaggerating his friend’s power? Maybe he wanted to reassure Jason, make him feel better after yesterday, or maybe it was from watching him nearly win against that Awesome girl. From what Rob had heard, a fight like that should’ve been pretty impressive.
“What about me?”
“One, minimum.” Again, the reply was immediate.
“With that in mind, why would the Citadel place me in a Border city alone?” A bit of confusion on both their faces. “If I’m that dangerous as is, a Class One with forty assets- no, forty two now. What stops me from taking the two of you and declaring myself Lord Grave?”
Jason obviously didn’t have an answer to that but Hector hesitated, unsure whether he should talk about what he knew. Rob made it easy on him.
“First, my loyalty. I simply wouldn’t do that, not of my own free will.” Hector flushed. “Second,” he tapped the base of his skull, “someone at the Arizona Regional Analyst Center would push a button and my body would be a pile of goo in less than a minute.” Jason looked surprised, if only slightly. Hector didn’t. “Third, if that failed, Gatekeeper would take out the city. Maybe someone else, but you get the point.”
“No one’s unbeatable.” Hector muttered.
“More to the point, there are steps in place to stop anyone the Citadel considers too dangerous. It’s not even a matter of trust. Mind control, the not-so-secret nightmare of contingency planners everywhere.” Hector gave a little chuckle at that, Jason didn’t.
“Hector, do you understand your basic failure yet?”
Hector let out a long breath as he slumped back into his chair, going boneless and letting his head loll back. It wasn’t dismissive, more like giving in. “Overconfidence. I haven’t won all of my fights, even without yesterday I lost plenty of matches in training, but I haven’t ever been in real danger before. Well…” his gaze drifted over to Jason, “…not usually. I… I just got too used to assuming that I could handle anything with the right preparation.”
Rob nodded. “Good. You were close to right though. With the right prep, you’re absolutely terrifying, and that’s without even considering your effect as a force multiplier. Just remember this in the future.” He let it rest for a bit, then turned his attention to Jason Grim. “So Jason, about your fight with Taker, after Hector went down-”
“Does it matter?” Jason’s voice was different from anything Rob had heard from him before. “Not just bitter, defeated.
“What do you mean?”
“I told Director Melody I wasn’t my mother, then I messed up, same as her. I’m out, right?” His voice had gone monotone. Rob didn’t know if that was better or worse but it obviously wasn’t good. Hector looked horrified and-
“Wait, what did you say?” Rob asked.
“I said I’m out, right?”
Rob blinked. It wasn’t necessary, obviously, but he just didn’t know what else to do. “You’re not speaking the way you usually do. Why… What changed?”
“Not much point to it anymore. Fitting in, standing out in a safe way, it’s all useless at this point. I wanted to do something worthwhile, prove to my parents that I could justify all the work they had to do…” Jason didn’t sigh, didn’t tear up, nothing. It was almost worse.
“Jason,” Grave said, speaking very slowly and very carefully, “Jason, you were up against a kinetic absorber and a duplicator. His armor projection protected him from your ‘death gaze.’ You literally had no chance against him.”
“I could’ve clapped.” Jason said. What? Either he saw the question in Rob’s face, something he would’ve thought unlikely, or he was planning to explain anyway. “Like you said, I read the report. Tear gas, tendrils and ambient heat. Force projections like his armor don’t usually conduct, electricity or heat, so it obviously wasn’t airtight. If I’d punched the ground hard enough, or just clapped, I could’ve generated a wave of overpressure, killed or knocked him out.”
Rob thought about it for a moment. Would that have worked? He looked at Hector, who shook his head.
“No. I mean, yeah. Jason, if you’d been strong enough you could’ve done the overpressure thing. Which is… actually a pretty good idea. Most Strong types couldn’t do that, but when you’re really amped up…” he trailed off for a moment. “Anyway, he didn’t react when I suicide bombed him with a half dozen grenades. Even without the fragmentation effect, that would’ve pulped anyone physically normal.” Again, he paused in thought.
“The heat getting through where naked flame couldn’t, that fits with the tear gas. His construct was obviously air permeable and didn’t have a good filter, though I’m a little surprised the tentacle finger thing worked.” Hector shrugged. “Powers are weird.”
“Eh, if it hadn’t I’d have just roasted him or covered him and the duplicates in forcefields until they suffocated.” Rob shrugged. It was good to have options. “No, you’re not at fault for losing to him. I just wanted to ask about your… reaction.” Jason’s face went dead. The traces of emotion he’d been showing were just flat out gone.
“Taker wasn’t known to have any kind of emotional manipulation ability, but we didn’t know about the duplication either. It’s hard to get good info from deep in the Battlegrounds. I just wanted to get your opinion on-”
“No. It… it wasn’t him. I saw Hector die, saw him kill himself en mass. I knew how much he hated- hates the idea of suicide. I have to snap his neck a few hundred times a day because he can’t bring himself to put a bullet in his own head. I thought Taker had done something to him, thought he was really dead.” He hesitated. “I thought I’d lost him.”
“That… doesn’t fit with your psyche profile.” Rob said.
“Obviously, the profile was wrong.”
Rob sat silent while he considered. “Then you were sent into the field without proper preparation. If… temper is going to be an issue for you, I’ll get a Support counselor assigned to you.”
Jason’s eyes shot open, hope written all over his face. “You mean-” He cut himself off, visibly exerting control. “I will endeavor to make sure you do not regret this.”
Rob wouldn’t have expected to find hearing that polite, overly formal voice so very relieving. “Good. In that case, you have your assignments. Jason, therapy. Hector, work on that overconfidence. In the mean time, starting tomorrow morning, you’ve got the next seventy two hours off. I want you to relax, figure out something you’ll enjoy doing.”
“Starting tomorrow, sir?” Jason asked.
Rob glanced at his watch. “Yep. In the meantime, there’s something I want you in on.”