“Just a waste of fuckin’ time,” Bea spat. She refused to even look at me, prefering the scenery of the parking lot.
I almost took the bait and started arguing with her again, but in her own words: waste of fucking time. “Look, it’s not like you have to actually do anything. Just go in, sit down, and have a friendly chat. I mean, how often do you get a chance to sit down with someone who’s forced to listen to you talk for an hour? I should think this would be a dream come true.”
She flipped me off with her left hand, and gestured with the right, but it was too bandaged for her to move her fingers. We were lucky that her right hand only needed a couple pins instead of a barrage of reconstructive surgeries. “Then why ain’t you in there?”
I leaned back against the seat. “Because I don’t start fist fights, that’s why. Besides, while you’re in there making the shrink’s life miserable, I’m stuck out here in the parking lot. Really, who got the worse deal out of this?”
She smiled. “Yeah, you’re right, but fuck you.” She got out, and I settled in for a bit of light reading on quality summer programs for college hopefuls. With any luck, I could get some of the low level prerequisites out of the way before dealing with the real work.
A couple men on the street stopped and watched Bea going into the building. For a second I was afraid it might be some Heritage assholes planning to send a message. I grabbed my cell and the handle of my truck, tensed for action.
They laughed with each other, smiling the sort of smile I was all too familiar with. I forced myself to relax. I didn’t like thirty-something year old men ogling my sixteen year old sister, but they weren’t doing anything dangerous.
A part of me wondered if that was racist, assuming two white guys in flannel hunting jackets were part of a hate group. I decided it was just stress, is all. The last couple weeks had been trying for everyone; Bea was on edge, Nanna nagged us on every little thing, and we just weren’t in a good headspace.
More than that, there was Heritage’s response; or I should say their lack of response. The fight got put in a few newspapers, even got the first page for a couple days. Then some new Imbued with flight showed up. Apparently that was more interesting than a black girl getting beat half to death.
It was like Heritage didn’t care at all that two of theirs were going to prison, and I wasn’t ready to believe that. The fear that this was just beginning had me jumping at shadows, such as a pair of men walking down the street.
I was restless that night, not the first time I’d lost some sleep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I got out of bed just to stretch and clear my head a little.
I heard the sobbing from Nanna’s room and froze. Her being up late was cause enough for alarm; that woman been asleep by nine and awake by four in all the years I’d known her, a habit picked up from years working with the church. I almost knocked, but then drew my hand away from the door. If I said anything, she’d lie to me and we’d both end up feeling worse.
I went to the bathroom, then hit the kitchen for some water. Part of my newly discovered paranoia was to leave the lights out when I went into rooms. I had good night vision, and it was easier to see out the windows without the glare of the lights. I spent maybe half an hour staring out the windows before heading back to bed.
I stopped next to Nanna’s door, and on a whim I opened it. Just a crack at first. “Nanna?” I whispered, peaking my head in. Good, she’s asleep.
Nanna wasn’t what one would call a light sleeper, and despite my size I could be quiet when I wanted. I went right for the papers covering her desk; if there were answers, they’d be here. It didn’t take long, the insurance papers were atop the pile, denying coverage of Beatrice’s expenses. By their logic, she started the fight and was therefor responsible for her own injuries.
I set that paper to the side, careful to remember to put everything down in order so Nanna wouldn’t notice I’d been going through her stuff. Everything else was a bunch of financial records, such as the house’s appraised value and her bank statement. Over about twenty minutes, I saw the overall problem; there was no way to pay for everything.
Nanna had already spent a lot of her windfall on our education, and these medical expenses took everything left and more. The paltry mortgage estimate offered little help. There just wasn’t much equity to be had in a three bedroom home in the poor side of Raleigh’s suburbs.
I could imagine her plan, to pay things back as long as she could and then lose the property later. Roughly speaking, she’d probably last five years. Long enough to get Bea and I through high school, perhaps give a little toward our college, but even that was a stretch.
I closed my eyes and fought down the tears and the anger. I knew we could fight the insurance company, sue them over this, but that would take time and money we just didn’t have, which brought us back to the mortgage and the bills. The end results would be the same. My sister’s stupid mistakes cost Nanna the house she and Grandpa built, the home they spent their first day as a married couple in. It’s not fair!
I felt that same familiar tug in the back of my mind. I can help, I can fix everything. There were no words spoken, even calling the feeling something as human as ‘feeling’ or ‘idea’ was laughably wrong. This thing, whatever it was, did not think like we thought if it even thought at all. All I knew is if I rejected this alien force of nature one more time, it would leave me forever. I had no choice, I wasn’t good enough to think of another way out.
Awareness coursed through me. Power. Strength. Options. Silently, I put the papers back in order and left Nanna’s room. There wasn’t much I could do to test my powers tonight, but I knew I’d be ditching school tomorrow.
Changing in an alleyway, what an illustrious way to start my career. My outfit started with one of Grandpa’s old suits. It wasn’t lost on me that I could wear it over my street clothes and it was still a little loose. He was a giant of a man, and I literally could not fill his shoes.
I’d butchered one of my older shirts to create a makeshift mask that couldn’t be traced back to me. I kept it long enough to stuff the fabric under my shirt. I looked… Okay, to be honest I looked like I decided to rob a bank on my way to a funeral. Good thing I didn’t really intend to be a superhero at all, I just needed a temporary costume for a temporary arrangement.
I concentrated, and metal oozed its way over my hands, forming gauntlets that were as thin as latex but strong as steel plate. With that and a pair of cheap glasses, every last inch of my skin was covered. Yeah, those Outreach pamphlets swore up and down about full anonymity, but I was raised by a family who trusted the government about as much as Satan himself.
I stepped out of the alley and went right to the Outreach office building. People gawked and stepped away, making me feel even more like a criminal. As a black man, I’d gotten used to people watching me with suspicion, I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t expecting was the sense of empowerment that came with the costume. This wasn’t the fear that I might rob them with a gun at night. It was the fear that I could eat bullets and rip a bank vault off its hinges.
Made all the more enjoyable by the fact that I could do exactly that.
I held my head high and walked into the building. It was less impressive than I expected, looking more like the DMV than some superhero recruitment building. The man at the desk was well past retirement age, probably older than Nanna. So far, he was the only person who didn’t look shocked to see me. “Yer a newbie?” His drawl was southern, but I couldn’t quite place the region. Louisianan, perhaps?
I swallowed, buying time to not sound stupid. “I got my powers recently, yes.” The metal frame over my mouth caused my voice to echo like something out of a ghost story.
“Registering as civilian, or in costume? And underage, or an adult?” He’d pulled out a piece of paper and started writing. “In civies, we’ll need identification such as a Driver’s License. In costume, it’s up to you. Diff’rence is how th’ law treats you. Minors gotta report to their guardians, unless you want to claim for protection against abuse or exploitation? If yer an adult, or you wanna be treated as one, we can proceed without a guardian.”
“Oh, umm, no.” Nanna would never hurt me, but I didn’t want to tell her I had powers at all. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her, but she was a proud woman and would never accept my help. “Adult and in costume it is, then.”
“Aight. Meet me down at the machine.” He got up and hobbled down to the far corner. I followed along, on my side of the counter. “Given thoughts to a name?”
“Uh, yeah, Damascus.” Close enough to my own name that if I accidentally responded when in the wrong identity, I could claim I heard ‘dom’ and made a mistake. Plus it fit well enough with my powers.
He took a seat at the machine, and started typing away. “And what can ya do? Keep in mind, we do prefer you demonstrate your powers unless they’re dangerous to people around you. If you need an Oracle or Sniper exemption, we’ll need further testing.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” I lifted my hand and let the metal extend out and warp into a spoon. Safest thing I could think of to show off. “I can convert metal I touch into a sort of liquid state and manipulate it with my mind. When I stop concentrating or lose contact, it converts back to normal metal but keeps its most recent shape.”
“Feromorphic,” the man stated as he typed. “Fine control, touch range. We’ll put you down as Maker 2. Do you have any direct control of the metal? An upper mass limit, perhaps the ability to lift other objects telekinetically? Can you alter the chemistry of the metals to, say, turn lead into gold? Or summon metal from nowhere?”
He’s done this a lot. I actually tried right then and there to turn the spoon into gold, and to my disappointment that failed. “Well, metal I’m controlling is weightless to me, but that doesn’t effect other things sitting on the metal. It also keeps its tensile strength even while I’m manipulating it.” I knew all that from testing on my truck. “I can’t make it from nothing or change it into a different metal. I, uh, found out I can clean rust, if that helps.”
“Well, Maker 2 still stands, but I’ll put in Summoner 1 fer tactile ferokinetic. Question is what you wanna do?”
“Uh, make money, I guess. I’m not interested in costumes or fights. I just need a, well, summer job.”
“Alright, flagging you as a civilian. Yer in luck, I don’t think your powers are cut out for law enforcement anyway.” If he knew the power I was keeping secret, he might change his mind. “Any objection to government contract work, such as perhaps helping scrap or preserve old military equipment? It might be better paying than civilian operations, and you’re under no obligations to accept any offer.”
“No, that’s fine, I’m not picky.”
He finished typing and slid a credit card to me. “Here’s your seed card, we’ll have you fully in the system in two days and potential offers within a week or two.”
“Secure Empowered Identification,” he said. A few papers joined the card. “It’s a one-stop debit card and personal ID tied to your ‘Damascus’ alter-ego. You can also swipe it at any pay phone to access our records and learn if you have employment offers. Be aware that there’s some risk of identity theft, as it has no social security or birth certificate connected to it. You are responsible for being careful with your SEID.”
If Bea was here, she’d have something cute to say. “Huh, so what’s to stop normal people from coming in and getting one of these?”
He shrugged. “Absolutely nothing’, ‘cept that there’s no point. It’s a government monitored bank account that gets taxed directly and is only used by businesses that deal with Imbued. You may as well counterfeit monopoly money for all the good it’ll do normal folks.”
“That makes sense.” My main problem’s still not solved. “What about, like, an advance on the job? I need money for… umm, medical expenses.”
He scrutinized me, perhaps the first time he really looked at me since I got here. “If ya got an illness or injury, there are healers. There are also halfway houses and addiction specialists if that’s what you mean.”
I shook my head, and regretted not accepting the first chance to gain powers. So much trouble I could have avoided. “Not for me. I was hoping maybe I could get some kind of emergency loan or…”
He sighed, and I already knew the answer. “Listen, kid. I ain’t gonna bullshit ya. Sometimes it can happen, for rare and high demand powers.”
“And I’m not.”
“Sorry.” I almost believed the man. “Ferokinetics are pretty rare, but not valuable. The metal industries rely on mass production. It’s cheaper, faster, and more reliable to use machines. Jewelry or custom work are small scale, and construction’s in the shitter. It could take months to find someone who wants you and has the money to look for Imbued labor.”
“Well, I’ll keep in touch.” I stood and walked out. I felt cheated, as much by Outreach as by my power. I was promised help, promised the ability fix the problem, and I still had nothing to show.
I walked out wanting nothing more than to find and punch someone who deserved it, to show I wasn’t worthless. Responding to my emotions, my metal exploded into blades and spikes, destroying the arms of the suit.
People scurried in fear at my outburst. It was far more satisfying than it should have been.
Maybe I’d have had more luck at the Outreach place if I’d admitted my last power, but it was too ‘police’ for my tastes. I could see iron at a range of almost half a mile. Much like normal vision, it could be blocked and things got blurry and indistinct at a distance, but that was the only weakness. I’d spent much of the day driving around town to find acceptable targets.
I reached out with my mind, ignoring my eyes as the intricate latticework of steel girders and rebar became my sight. My power was more limited than implied to Outreach; I could only sense metals that were iron. That included steel, or at least most forms of steel, but it didn’t work on much else. Including blood, wood, or dirt; I knew all those contained iron, but apparently not enough for my power to respond to.
That was fine; guns are made from pure steel. I stumbled across dozens of them, packed together and hidden below street level in a building. The sign said it was for cryogenics, and the internet said the company researched gasses. The building seemed too small to be a research lab, only roughly the same size as a fast food joint, and no one was there.
It seemed safe to assume the weapons, assault weapons no less, were here illegally. I hoped there was cash stored here as well, but even without it I could make some money. There were bounties for turning in captured illegal goods, like drugs or firearms, and this was a lot of guns.
I called up my armor; an old farm tractor from a swamp patch provided the mass I needed to create a full suit of armor. Roughly four hundred pounds of steel, complete with over sized sword, formed around me. I rushed the building; I needed to act fast in case there was some kind of alarm system.
I stopped at the door, sensing what I could. It didn’t seem to have an electronic lock. The door itself was metal, but probably aluminum, and the handle brass, I couldn’t shape it. I knelt down and allowed my metal to flow in, shaping until I found the right key shape. A simple turn and the door was open.
The inside of the building was unremarkable. It looked like an unfinished office space, still waiting for the walls to be completed. The whole place carried a sharp scent of dust and small amounts of ozone.
I went toward what seemed to be my target; an iron grate giving access to some crawlspace or drainage tunnel. The weapons weren’t far from it. I’d probably need my flashlight once I-
A sudden burst of light blinded me. Before I could even scream in surprise, a mass slammed my back against the wall. If not for my armor, the weight pressing against on me would have broken both my arms. There wasn’t any pressure on my chest or legs, just my arms.
A female voice, distorted by crackling static spoke. “You are the least lucky burglar that’s not dead. Yet.”
Pain shot through my arm as the woman squeezed hard enough to push through my metal. More pain when she threw me across the room. Then nothing but darkness.