The ability to transmit my consciousness anywhere I wanted was convenient to say the least. I could telecommute to work with my mind alone if my boss hadn’t shot that idea down so hard I never dared it up again. So I got to enjoy D.C. traffic twice a day.
I was less than one full step into my office when Silf spoke to me through my intercom. “Special project for you.”
Oh joy. My computer started itself, thanks to Silf’s commands. Nothing unusual, that. Silf was our tech support and genius hacker, amongst other things. She was our computer system. “So, how special is this special project?” I sat at my desk, looking at the screen.
“We have a new Imbued, tentative TL two. He claims to have discovered his powers on Monday. Accidentally, in class. We have video of him from yesterday.”
A video activated, showing a shitty cell video of two kids racing on a school track. It didn’t take long to see what was so special, as one boy duplicated himself, and then the original dissolved into color. Yellow, blue, and green. Third stage? I stated the obvious. “He’s lying about when he got his powers.”
“We believe he is the Imbued who fought Kitten two days ago.”
Oh, shit. “You’re shitting me. And he survived?”
“His power appears to be corrective short range teleportation. Making him a candidate for Tank Eight. For all of Kitten’s known abilities, she doesn’t have Breaker options.”
“I thought we agreed that Anima went after Kitten. I mean, she did download the files, right?”
“Correct. However, recent forensics suggest the battle was ongoing for several minutes before before those files were accessed.”
Which rules her out. “Why me? You know I’m not a recruiter. Why not Sympathy, this is the sort of thing she’s best at.”
“EV at less than five percent if we send Sympathy. Thimble’s numbers suggest you have the greatest possible odds of a satisfactory result.”
And because free will is for other people, we trust the precogs over all other factors. “So, what do we have on this kid? A primer for before I read the full report, please.”
“Zachariah Matthew Parker, age sixteen. Student at Hamilton High. Average low B student. Based upon grade distribution, appears intelligent but unmotivated. Better than average math and science comprehension. Probable left brain thinker; I would suggest a logical, non-emotional approach.”
“Could be why Sympathy’s not top of the list. She’s better at emotional methods than logical ones.” It was, again, the obvious conclusion. “That and the kid might be gay.” Second class citizens always did get the lion’s share of new Imbued.
Saying it out loud, I didn’t buy it. Sympathy was a genius at understanding people; she didn’t need to rely on attraction or a specific mentality to do her work.
“It is a theory worth considering. I shall see if I can find more evidence to that effect.” Silf offered. “His parents are Michelle and Jacob Parker, divorced nine years ago. Mother is an administrative assistant at a pediatrics clinic, works an average of fifty hours a week.”
“Father is career military, wounded and partially paralyzed after a helicopter crash in Desert Storm. Now has a desk job in a recruiter’s office. Possible secondary approach could be through the father.”
Okay. Now I just have to decide if Zach is the type of kid who wants to impress his father, or the type that wants to rebel. “He’s got a visible power, which suggests he has a more attention seeking nature. His power’s ability to protect him hints at a fear of physical harm. What are the odds that he’s being abused?”
“Unlikely.” Another video popped up, this time showing an interview between him and his principal. “Profiling suggests a distant relationship with his parents. He shows a resentment toward authority, but no signs of fear or trauma.”
In other words, the bog standard parent-teen relationship. “This is going to be a long day.” I settled in for a detailed review of this kid who might be one of the strongest superhumans on the continent.
I manifested into the meeting room. A glow of red light, cast from my projection body, clashed with the florescent lights.
It struck me, that they were using their boardroom for this get together, and still it was trashy at best. Smaller than I would have expected for a school with this many students, and there were clear signs of damaged drywall. My low spectrum vision revealed more, the layers of damage beneath the paint that indicated substandard repair work done on the walls. With a moment of concentration, I had my real body speak. “Silf, you in position?”
“I am always in position.”
I surpressed an impulse to use that as a chance to flirt with her, but office romance was least of the reasons that was a bad idea. So I picked the least sexy topic imaginable. “While we’re waiting, what’s the policy on reporting rats in a school?”
“How certain are you?”
Silf knew more about how my vision worked than I did, so this was more for the sake of protocol than anything. “Well, they’re either rats or squirrels. Which do you think you’ll find crawling around under the floors? I’m counting around sixty or so in my range.”
“Based upon your range and the average reproduction rate of common rat species in near ideal situations, I estimate the colony at two months old. I will file and submit a report of a suspected vermin infestation to Principal Jensen.” Silf waited for a moment. “I am also including a list of assistance programs that the school qualifies for, yet has failed to file. It is likely the administration does not know about them, they are rather obscure.”
“You’ve cost the taxpayers more in obscure grants and tax loopholes than Disney.”
“All for good causes, I assure you. Now be ready, the subject is arriving.”
The door opened, giving me a view of both the Principal and the kid with standard vision. Neither were people I would give a second glance on the street. Zach got most of my attention. I scanned his body with the full suite of my vision extent of my vision, extending from microwaves to x-rays. Well, that’s interesting.
I had my projection stand. “Good day. Do you prefer I call you Mister Parker, or Zach?” Simultaneously, I was talking to Silf with my real body. “He has no signs of old injuries. His power healed all prior injuries and scars.”
“Noting in file. Esper Value at tentative ninety seven percent.” I resisted the urge to smile, Silf always did know how to flatter me.
The kid shrugged, sitting down. “Doesn’t really matter. So, are you always like this?”
Hmm, faking apathy. Again, standard teen behavior that reveals nothing. “This is my power. I create a projection and can speak or see through it. It’s only a hologram, no ability to touch anything.” I passed my hand through the desk a couple times while making sure I didn’t hit anything with my real body, and observing his emotional responses through my sight.
It only yielded a small amount of information. He was nervous, I knew that much, but there could be any number of reasons for that. There was another spike in emotion when I told him about my power, but I wasn’t sure what that meant.
“So I’m not even important enough to send someone in person?” He tried to act annoyed by this, and on some level he may have been. He got a flashy power, after all, and that was always a sign of someone who wanted to be taken seriously. But the calming of his heart rate and breathing made it clear he was relieved by this news.
“I’m sure my boss has a good reason. Or maybe your principal asked him not to disrupt classes with costumed heroes in the halls.” All things that could be true and I hoped would put the kid at ease. “But we do want to talk to you about your abilities.”
“This about yesterday? Coach Murray said to run laps, so I ran laps. I’m pretty sure I’m banned from gym forever, now.”
Silf gave me a running commentary from her side. “My profile suggests he is upset by this. Change the subject.”
“I expect that would be hard, having the option taken from you by your powers. I’ve never been much of an athlete, myself.” I gestured with my projection, it was an exact replica of my body and outfit after all.
When I was Zach’s age, I was the last kid picked in gym. Twenty years and about fifty pounds hadn’t improved my physique from then. By pretending I didn’t know that he was the same nonathletic type, I hoped to put him at ease. “Would you like a place to use your powers athletically? Even get training on using them better?”
His eyes narrowed in distrust. “You mean you want to sign me up for PREP, right? That’s a stupid name, by the way.”
Silf realized it the same moment I did. “Someone has already talked to him about this. Trying to defend PREP will only alienate him further.” Or maybe she was just giving me an extra second to make me feel like my thoughts weren’t molasses compared to hers.
“Won’t hear me arguing with that.” Except all the times when I have to because it’s part of my job. “But stupid name notwithstanding, thousands of businesses have people dedicated to reading through and finding ideal candidates for jobs that would otherwise be impossible to do. Even the lower end Imbued can make millions of dollars before they’re twenty. I, for example, work part time for NASA checking damage to shuttles or the International Space Station.”
“Yeah, I don’t care. All the jobs my power can do are summed up as ‘oops, but at least we don’t have to pay for a funeral’. I’ll pass, thanks.” He sighed. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have actual things to worry about and I was hoping to take care of them during lunch. So can we just put on a file that you did your best and I invoked my right as a red blooded ‘murican to tell the government to fuck off? Because that would be awesome, thanks.”
“We never stood a chance, did we?” I made extra careful not to say that with my projection form. I didn’t think I was stressed enough to make that mistake, but there was no such thing as being too cautious.
“It appears we did not,” Silf agreed.
“Okay, dropping the recruitment angle and treat this as an interview with a hostile witness.”
I spoke through my projection. “Okay, let’s just drop the bullshit and get straight to important part. We know about Kitten.”
His heart rate jumped. Nerve struck. The only question is which nerve. “Are you accusing me of something?”
I shuffled through approaches, plans of attack. “We know there was an encounter between her and an as yet unidentified Imbued. Someone, and we don’t know who, fought her to a standstill and forced her to use powers she’s never before revealed. There are only five Imbued in this region who rank high enough do such a thing. Four of them protect heads of state. And then there’s Anima.” There’s the increased heartbeat again. “We’ll be taking to her next, assuming you’re not our mystery vigilante.”
“You can just keep looking, then. But out of curiosity, if I were?”
Bingo. “There’s not much we can do. The damage occurred to a condemned building, and there’s no identified victim of a crime. Awful lot of blood, but testing’s confirmed that it belongs to a female regenerator. Congrats, you’re one of three people who’ve made Kitten bleed and lived to brag about it.”
The kid shrugged, looking at the wall behind me. “Sounds like whoever did that was a real badass.”
Someone else might have said something stupid about how powers are random, decided by luck. But I knew better. We earned what we had, paid for it. “Yes, so if we have another top tier Imbued out there, they’re going to be a priority target. We have the advantage of resources and found you first. But it won’t be long before villains come to recruit.”
His heart was racing now. “I expect this badass would be able to handle any villains that try.”
“And his family? Does he have the power to protect them?” If this kid wanted to play that game, I’d go along with it.
“We both know villains don’t go after families. Something about suicide by Surge?”
Silf’s voice distracted me a moment. “That is not common knowledge. He has been talking to someone.”
“I’ll keep fishing.” I turned my attention back to Zach. “Sure, that’s true of normal villains. But Kitten isn’t a normal villain. Not only is she a violent psycho, she has a power that lets her see biopatterns. She can identify anyone she’s encountered before, after they’re out of costume.”
His heart jumped again, it was a pretty obvious tell. “So, you see, we need to find this mystery Imbued who fought her, get his family into protection before she tracks them down.” I knew I messed up before I even finished the sentence.
“Fuck you.” He stood, his body language hostile. It was an empty gesture considering I wasn’t there to be threatened. “If you gave one shit about Kitten’s victims, you’d have stopped her years ago! Instead you’ve decided it’s better just to let her run free than risk your own asses!”
“It appears our suspicions are correct. He could only know that information if he had access to restricted files.” Silf caught on before I did. “This suggests that Anima shared information with him. Sapphire will not be pleased.”
That was drama I wished would stop chewing our metaphorical asses, but I focused on something else entirely. The kid had a Cause. That meant trouble for the rest of us.
I let my projection vanish and reappear closer to him, standing. I put my hand on his shoulder. I couldn’t touch him, but my projections did generate the same amount of heat energy as a human body, he’d feel the warmth. “Listen to me, Zach. Believe it or not, I understand what you’re going through. You’re not the first Imbued with a mission, the first to have the belief that he’s the only one who can make a difference. I’ve seen this story repeated time and again. If you keep going down this path, it will destroy you. It’s not worth it. She is not worth it.”
“Don’t you fucking dare-” His fist passed through me and slammed into the wall hard enough to break his hand. The shouting didn’t stop when that body started to dissolve itself, it simply moved to another him. “-talk about Erica like that!” He’d already pulled open the door. “This conversation is over!”
Damn. “You saw that, didn’t you?”
“The boost in proprioception and mental processing, negating any confusion about the perspective shift?”
I nodded. “He has a brief moment where he possesses both brains’ abilities. Superhuman reflexes and alertness for a second or two.”
“It also confirms Tank Eight status. His ability to restore and cannibalize is a highly efficient defense, coupled with the secondaries to take advantage of the power.”
I was more concerned with how Kitten had a similar ability to boost her mental abilities. This was going to involve a lot of paperwork.
Commander Mitchels didn’t look at all pleased with my report. “Com, I agree with your assessment that Zach was a lost cause before you arrived, but it does not make our jobs easier when independents shout profanities at us while storming out of the room.”
“There was critical information I didn’t have. Some I still don’t have. We know where he got the idea that we were avoiding a fight with Kitten.”
Sapphire shifted, and I could tell that she was upset. She should be, this particular SNAFU fell at her feet. More than anything, though, I was a little surprised she cared about what she did to Anima. I kept my mouth shut.
Sapphire looked over at Sympathy, and after a moment, she calmed down and became almost neutral about the whole affair. I knew they were Pairbonded, but it was still creepy as hell how their hearts literally beat in unison when they spoke to one another through their bond. It was downright nonhuman how they behaved. Like those movies about spooky psychic twins, only they were my coworkers.
Mitchels brought us back on course. “It might be time to cut Anima off from our network. Letting her think we didn’t know was an unorthodox plan in the first place, even if it has given us some good results. But giving this new kid access makes it too much a liability.”
“You’re right, Commander,” Sapphire’s voice was calm. Either she was the best actress in the world, or she didn’t feel upset at all.
I didn’t offer an opinion, this wasn’t really my place to say. “I would like more information on Erica.”
Silf, as always, was the first on the ball. “I believe I have found a match. Erica Tanner, classmate to his sister. Found murdered. Sealed juvenile record. Do I have permission to invoke Class Five protocols?”
Mitchels’ heartrate jumped. “Is this really that dire?”
Time for me to jump to Silf’s defense. “I believe it is. Zach’s already functionally admitted to fighting Kitten once. Even new to his powers, he forced her to use abilities that confirm she’s fourth stage. And he seems to have every intent on a rematch. It could be the catalyst.”
Mitchels nodded his head. “Do it.”
“Erica Lynn Tanner, age twenty two, multiple priors for drug possession with intent to distribute starting at thirteen. CPS investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by the father, who claimed to be unaware of her activities. Reported as a runaway at sixteen, hospitalized soon after due to a violent assault by her then boyfriend.” Silf paused for a second. “It is a long file. She was found dead fifteen days ago. The murder was classified as gang violence, the girl a prostitute or drug runner operating the wrong streets.”
I rubbed my eyes with my hand. “Bet you if we reopen the investigation, we’ll trace it straight to Kitten’s claws.” I took a slow breath. “What’s worse, I’m pretty certain this was the source of Zach’s Manifestation. And to make this a trifecta of bad news, I think he surged during his fight with her.”
Sympathy spoke first. “That’s a problem, maybe I should try to talk to him.”
I shook my head. “No, no. We know he’s in contact with Anima, enough that she gave him access to Kitten’s records. I can’t begin to guess what Anima told him, but I bet that’s why Thimble said you were a bad choice.”
Sympathy looked away from me, back toward Sapphire. The two were nowhere near as subtle as they thought they were. It was Sapphire that spoke up next. “Then the situation may not be as bad as it looks. He’s formed a strong rapport with Anima. It may be a loss in terms of recruitment, but if we keep Zach from starting a war with Kitten, that would be victory enough. Anima will push for that as hard as anyone.”
Mitchels finally came to a conclusion. “Okay, we can use that. Silf, it shouldn’t be too long before Anima peaks in on his profile, to learn what we know about him. See if you can’t drop hints to help her control him. Sympathy, Com, I’d like the two of you to help with any insights you can. And keep looking for ways to gain his cooperation. Hopefully we can stop this before it becomes a problem.”
“Yes, sir.” And God help us all if we can’t.