Jason and Hector followed Operative Grave from the room, out to the station’s private parking area. On the way, Jason found himself consistently lagging slightly behind the other two. He could not say why, except, perhaps, that he found it somewhat… uncomfortable when Hector was not in his sight. The young man chose not to dwell upon that thought.
“We’re still a little early but they should be here soon.” Grave said.
“They?” Hector asked.
“Soon enough.” Jason could not see Operative Grave’s face, but he suspected the man was smiling.
Indeed, a few minutes later, Jason heard it. Footsteps, or rather, he heard several footsteps. The Citadel was not exactly a military organization, certainly not a traditional one, and they did not practice precision marching, close order drill or anything of the sort. Nevertheless, Jason had seen such things often enough, on the television and in movies, to recognize the sound of a small group marching in time.
Seven steps that he heard, despite the lack of an obvious cause, followed by seven steps made by a group of semi-translucent figures and ending with seven steps from a group of men and woman in Citadel uniforms. Completely without surprise, Jason noted that there were seven of them, three in the middle with the rest arrayed to the front, rear and sides. He was slightly startled to note that he recognized two of the inner group.
The foremost of those three stepped forward to exchange a familiar greeting with Robert Grave while the outer four took up defensive positions, facing outward and obviously on the alert.
“Hey Rob, how’s it been?” he asked. The two shook hands.
“Pretty much business as usual John, at least by local standards. I did finally get a little backup though.” He turned his head back, briefly looking at Hector and Jason. “What can we do for you? I assume you’re looking for someone?”
The man nodded. “But first, let me introduce you to my newest pair.” He waved the two who had stood just behind him forward, the two Jason had recognized. “Anna, Michael, this is Robert Grave.” The talk dissolved into several minutes of exchanged greetings, handshakes and the like that did not break up until Anna spoke to Jason.
“Zero.” she said, and even Jason had no trouble detecting her surprise. “Why-? Jason, why haven’t you killed anything?” Most of the others present reacted by looking at her, their mouths open or their eyes a little wide. Robert Grave and Hector Hive both turned to Jason and spoke at the same time.
“Dammit Grim why-” “Jason! You-” They stopped and only Operative Robert continued. “Why aren’t you carrying anything? After yesterday it should be damn obvious that that sort of thing isn’t safe.” He turned on Hector before Jason could answer him. “And you, please tell me that isn’t your only body?”
“No sir, I’ve got a handful back home and a few more out apologizing to my employers, checking to see which jobs I’ll be able to keep. And one more, at the hospital.” The last part was a little quieter than the rest, as was Jason’s own reply.
“Sir, as I said. I thought I was out of the program. I… didn’t see the point.”
Grave sighed, clearly for effect. “Fine. You have a vial on you?” Jason nodded and handed it over. “Hector, do that multiplication thing you tried against Taker.” he said, passing it on to Jason’s friend. Operative Hive did as instructed and, moments later, there were half a dozen of him present along with thirty two vials of dead flies.
“Better.” he started to resume his conversation with John Strider, then seemed to think of one more thing. “Oh, and Jason, that thing I mentioned I wanted you to do? Screw waiting, it’ll start tomorrow. I’ll set it up and send you the details tonight. When we’re done here, I want you to spend the rest of the day doing something you’ll genuinely enjoy.”
“Well, now that that little bit of weirdness is out of the way…” John said. “Anything you want Anna to keep an eye out for while she’s checking the city?” Jason heard Anna make a small noise at the question. He was not sure why.
“Yeah, take a look at the station’s basement. There should be something unusual but I’d rather see if you can spot it first, rather than explain ahead of time.” Rob requested.
The girl, still wearing her familiar but completely unnecessary glasses, nodded. She stood there for a time, still and silent, then spoke. “There’s a man in one of the holding cells. I… I think he’s under some sort of influence, mental- mind control I mean. It’s like… like someone told him to sit there quietly and he decided that- that it was a good idea. I don’t… I don’t normally get that much insight into someone’s thought processes but it’s all there in the power effect.”
Robert nodded, smiling slightly. “And he’s the only one you see in the area with something like that?”
“Yes sir.” she said.
The smile stopped being slight. “Good news Hector, you’re in the clear.”
“Huh?” was Hector’s reply.
“Viral’s power, whatever command he gave you that made you freeze up then try to kill yourself? It’s gone.”
“Oh.” Hector was obviously enough confused that even Jason could see it. “Are you sure… I thought that I did that so he couldn’t… but then why did the mes at Analysis and in LA- oh.” The six Hectors were not quite in sync, though their statements overlapped a bit. Jason decided this must be what genuine confusion, uncertainty, looked like on his friend. “Thank you Anna.”
“No prob.” she said, with every appearance of casual unconcern, then went back to her search. “Did you know you had a Crowley Lodge in town?”
“No,” said Grave, “though I’d appreciate it if you could get me the details when you have a chance. Anything else?”
“You’ve got a lot of Empowered at what looks like a hospital. Most of them are pretty weak and some of the strongest are… not really a threat.”
John Strider answered that one. “Phoenix is the registration exam center for the Border. They’re more careful about Empowered contamination in their research than most. Go on.”
“A couple of strong ones throughout town. There’s a pyrokinetic about half a mile from here-”
“Hans Sullivan, he works for the fire department.” Jason supplied.
“And a Strong type that’s… wow, almost on par with Isaac, but she’s pretty old.”
“Agnes. She gained her Empowerment late in life and has no desire to genuinely utilize it.” he said, ignoring the looks that both Hector and Robert were giving him. After the same thing happened a few more times, he gave in. “I have spent a good deal of my time at the hospital’s Empowered clinic, especially with the participants in their research and the individuals suffering from Disadvantageous Empowerment Syndrome.”
His superior simply nodded, then turned his attention back to Anna. The Hectors began smiling, very broadly. Jason chose not to question it. After a few more minutes, Anna shook her head.
“Sorry sir,” she said to John Strider, “I’m not seeing anyone that looks like a decent candidate. Not even anyone with a shapeshifter style ability, much less what you’d need to pull off what he’s been doing.”
Robert Grave raised an eyebrow but said nothing. John Strider sighed, then spoke. “The suspect’s codename is Skinthief. I’ll send you the details so you can keep an eye out, but the short version is that he’s a serial body snatcher with a particularly gruesome method. My Hunter team’s just been assigned to him and this is our first step, a quick look through all the major population centers in the area. Luckily, Operative Insight makes this portion of the job far easier than anyone I’ve worked with before. We’ve been able to cover the kind of ground it’d normally take four or five teams to take care of, minimum.
“Guess that’s it. Anything else we can do to help out before we go?” he asked. Rather than answer, Rob looked back at Jason and Hector.
Jason had nothing to add, but apparently Hector did. “Um, yes sir. I do know someone that could use a favor, if you don’t mind, that is.”