I messed everything up. I walked back to my lab, willing myself not to cry. Autonomic response in response to emotional stimuli. Corrected with minor electric shock delivered to the pontine tegmentum. No. Miss Jill says I can’t rely on my powers to solve problems. I started my breathing exercises, inhaling and exhaling slowly as I counted back from sixty.
It’s just part of the narrative, extra drama before the payoff. I only need to be patient. But what if I’m wrong and he’s not the one? But that only works if I’m the main character instead. A chill ran down my back, and again my power gave me a list of ways to fix the problem. No, that’s not possible, I’m just a mechanism to enable the plot, that’s all.
I kept the panic attack at bay long enough to get to my lab. Chimie scampered from her hiding spot under the book shelf, ready by my chair before I even sat down. She hopped onto my lap, looked up at me with her large black eyes, and chirped in concern.
“No. I’m not okay.” Chimie nuzzled my hand with her face. I kicked my shoes away in spite; all they did was make my feet hurt. What did I do wrong? Everything in his profile suggested he liked tall women who were honest; considering how hard it would be to deceive someone with his perceptive advantage, the latter was no surprise. Maybe if I had made myself brunette instead.
I looked down at the chimera I put so many years into making. Chimie was all the best features of bunny and cat for ideal cute fluffiness, and raccoon for cleverness and manual dexterity. In the end, she ended up looking a lot like an extra-furry cat-sized sugar glider. I scratched behind her floppy ears, and she thanked me with happy purring noises. Other than that, she waited in silence until I was ready to say more.
“I’m stupid. I scared him off.” Chimie was somewhat smarter than most dogs, but not enough to understand what I was saying. All she understood was that I was sad. “I spent so long looking, and now…” I trailed off, unable to complete the words. I looked at my computer screen, unwilling to guess at the number of Imbued I sorted through before finding the right one.
The project required a lot of specific traits. A low end Imbued, capable but not so potent that the stacking of abilities overloaded the cybernetics. Of those, we needed one who’d be willing and able to function as a covert operative. Given that the narrative around powers seemed to disrupt the status quo rather than support it, the list was narrow indeed.
“I guess we can settle for Family Man.” Chimie hissed in disapproval; again, sensing my own feelings. She was right, he might not even be usable, since we had no way of knowing if his power was as weak as it sounded. The ability to make anyone, including men, in his line of sight pregnant was incredible if you had the faintest understanding of biology. The unknown was if the arbitrary nature of powers considered it a weak or strong ability.
Miss Jill keeps telling me to try to turn negatives into positives. “He was already a vigilante before he got arrested, so he’s a good guy. And I kinda want to see how his power really works?” Chimie’s chirp was lackluster at best. “Yeah, I know.”
I tapped through the government list of powers cataloged this this past week. After filtering out all Rank 2 and above abilities, there were another fifty to pick from. I flicked through dozens before stumbling across one that might work. A female high school student from northern Illinois whose power was to change her hair color, style, and length at will. Seemed there was some drama and a suicide attempt after she was disqualified from martial arts competitions due to having powers, followed by a nasty breakup with her girlfriend.
Whatever the full story, she was physically fit, had some combat skills, was in need of structure in her life, and had a background that made vanishing from public life believable. She was one of the better candidates I had come across. Reluctantly, I flagged her as a potential recruit if we hadn’t located a better option by the time she graduated.
I hope this isn’t one of those stories. I don’t want to be the adorable quirky love interest of another girl.
My pager beeped, then went straight to the voice option. “Doctor Reed, you are needed in meeting hall three to debrief Mister Cross.”
“I knew it!” I squeezed Chimie in a hug so hard that if she were any normal animal, she’d have multiple broken bones. Instead, her spongelike internal structures compressed and she let out a loud squeak. “This proves it’s meant to be!” I jumped out of the chair, tossing my chimera back toward her bookcase.
“Wheeeee!” Chimie screeched before bouncing off the wall with a thud. She landed on her feet, then excitedly chirped her happiness for me as I rushed out the door. She’d climb back into her bed and nap while waiting for me to come back; one of the downsides to her construction was a huge need for calories compared to body size and activity level. To compensate, I had to include the cat behavior of sleeping away most of its life.
I was halfway to the meeting room when I realized I was barefoot. Oh well, that just adds to my quirkiness factor. I did stop to catch my breath and check my hair in front of one of the metal panels; it wasn’t a perfect mirror, but it was good enough for a touchup.
I was the last person to make it to the meeting. Doctor Patil sat at the head of the table, with Warren to his right. I smiled as Warren’s pupils dilated and he took the time to give a brief glance at my bare feet.
And that’s why you paint your toenails. Or maybe he’s just into feet. One frustrating aspect of Warren’s power and self control was that my own observational skills could draw only the most obvious information from his body language. Oh well, if that’s his thing, I don’t mind.
There was no elegant or ladylike way that I could display my availability, so I opted to sit on the opposite side of the table. Now, no matter who he was watching, I’d at least be in the corner of his eye.
“You’re just in time, Doctor Reed,” Doctor Patil said while I selected a chair. “I just finished introducing the others, and we were about to get started on exactly what each wing of the project will be doing. Integral, please do the honors.”
I bristled a bit; Integral was one of the only Imbued on the base who insisted on keeping a secret identity. Underneath his cheesy circuitry-pattern red and gold armor was a short, somewhat stocky man that I didn’t trust for a moment. I had plans to shut him down when the narrative called for his sudden but inevitable betrayal. I wouldn’t use them myself, of course, but took steps to ensure others could when it became necessary.
Until that happy day, he was the head of the Gadgeteers of Blue Steel, because his power allowed him to understand and modify the Gadgets of others. He was the only reason we could cram so much stuff into a single person. Except me, because he can’t work wet.
Integral stood, activating the holosystem he had in his armor, a total waste of effort when we had a perfectly good television built into the wall. What this meant was only Doctor Patil and Warren could see the display screen. “My team’s Tech is built primarily upon the eponymous Blue Steel armor system. This equipment is a triumph of multi-discipline Technician research.”
He was also one of those pretentious loons who insist on calling Gadgeteers ‘Technicians’, as if our powers had any grounding in technology. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded going back to the days when we were called Artificers; at least that was honest.
“The metal itself absorbs almost any form of excess energy, including those generated by most Imbued abilities, and converts it into power that is stored in a series of battery chambers. Thanks to our hard work, there are numerous interchangeable augments that we can swap based upon the need of the mission at hand.”
While Integral droned along about various enhancements and optional features, I looked around the room at the other project leaders. Doctor Patil was one of the most important people in the organization, and head of our department. I liked him well enough, but in the end he was a normal and couldn’t understand what it means to be Imbued. His job, near as I could tell, was to be our marketing agent.
Professor Abernathy, our resident Intel department head, had the power to frame a question in her mind and get one word answers exactly five times per day. Even though it couldn’t answer future events, she still had the potential to be one of the most dangerous Espers on the planet. More importantly, she was watching Warren with an appraising gaze that told me I had a potential rival.
Then, Professor Abernathy didn’t have much chance in this competition. The blonde was roughly the same age as Warren, true, but where he had a physique on par with an Olympic athlete, she had lost health and gained inches to age and a sedentary lifestyle. Besides, she counted as his superior officer in this more-or-less military organization. At worst, she would be a minor obstacle to the final payoff, to help the audience get more invested in the romantic subplot.
I spared a moment’s attention to where Integral was now droning on about Jacob’s work on the modular tracking packages. Warren listened with a careful discipline, but he was still a man, and no man could listen to Integral for more than two minutes without yearning to gouge out his own ears. I fanned my fingers, using the motion to catch his eye, and offered a sly smile.
Something about the look in his eye worried me, but I couldn’t read him well enough to decide what it was. His eyes flicked to the others in the room before returning to Integral, who was now going on about close-quarters combat options. I was left wondering what he concluded.
Warren waited for Integral to breathe, then cut in with a question. “And all of these compartmental options will require a new surgery to swap one for another, I take it?”
Yes it will. I was about to answer, but Integral didn’t want to give up the spotlight. “We are working on a system that can teleport components remotely, but the defensive properties of Blue Steel are proving difficult to overcome. Until then, I’m afraid it must be done manually. The initial process to replace your skeleton with the core systems will be done via teleportation, but after that we must rely on Doctor Reed’s talents.”
I offered my best smile for Warren; with the light workout running to the meeting room, I still had a bit of a glow to my skin that he must have noticed. “Don’t worry, I’m available whenever you need me.” That was innocent enough, right? Not inappropriate, but still an invite if he’s interested? If only Mallory’s skill boosting power worked on flirting.
“Doctor Reed is the best biotechnician on the planet. You can rely on her.” To my surprise, it was Integral who backed me up. “If not, then we do have healers on staff who can undo any part of the process.” Not that it stopped him from being a jerk.
“Perhaps we should move on to the other aspects of the project?” Professor Abernathy said. “You are already familiar with my power. In addition, we have high level access to most government intelligence related to appropriate projects. And under the umbrella of the Patriot Act, you can count on support from any federal law enforcement agency, should you have need of it.”
I kept my own jealousy hidden; Warren was as alert as I was, but I was as capable of controlling my body language as he was. If he saw I felt threatened by Professor Abernathy, he’d wonder if she was worthy of jealousy.
Warren had his response ready before Abernathy finished. “Although the nature of this project means that’s barely better than a lose condition.”
Abernathy’s smile widened some. “For anything short of locating an unexpected terrorist cell, it is. Our job is meant for pinpoint strikes against high value individual targets. Anything else is beyond the scope of our contract.”
“Assassination work, then?” Warren didn’t sound pleased with the concept.
“Surgical work,” Doctor Patil corrected. “If at all possible, we’ll never kill a single target. Nonlethal takedowns under all circumstances. You’re aware of Retributive Imbuement Transferal. We don’t want that happening on our watch.”
“And the hope is, if we have to do it anyway, we get the backlash instead of the country itself,” Warren said with utmost confidence. By Abernathy’s sudden spike in breathing, the thought startled her. I hadn’t thought of it, myself, but I had better control than her. Patil knew already, and Integral was hidden behind concealing armor that made him impossible to read.
“We take on the burden, so others don’t have to.” I knew Doctor Patil was quoting something, but I didn’t know from where.
“Don’t worry, I get it. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a country tries to hold Imbued on too tight a leash. The extra layer of separation is a smart one.” Abernathy and Patil both relaxed visibly as Warren expressed his thoughts. “I imagine that’s at least part of why you’re looking for such a low level Imbued to be the spearhead of this operation. If there are any deaths, perhaps the power will only respond to my ability, rather than everyone who contributed to my equipment.”
I felt a warmth in my stomach, the standard response of reproductive imperatives letting my upper consciousness know that my body approved of this narrative. He is so much smarter than anyone here gave him credit for.
“There is also an alternate theory that the new power attempts to adapt to everyone involved,” Abernathy said. I stayed passive, not willing to let Warren know that he figured out in minutes something I hadn’t realized after working on this project for years. “When powers adjust themselves, they tend to sacrifice utility to specialize against the threat. Attempting to adapt to so many Imbued could result in a power that collapses under its own weight.”
“It’s an interesting theory.” Warren smiled just a bit. “The only good bureaucracy is enemy bureaucracy. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but if I’m going to be doing something suicidally insane, it’s nice to have a slim chance of survival.”
He’s going to be mine. He has to be.
The rest of the conversation veered in a direction that left me and Integral struggling to keep up. Warren discussed aspects of military strategy and politics that I had little context for. My stomach hurt that they were still going on when I had to leave for my therapy session with Miss Jill. Warren gave me a polite goodbye, but that was about it.
Miss Jill smiled as she always did. The mousy brunette was smaller than me, and only a few years older, but she was so smart about all the things I was dumb at that I could almost pretend she was my mom. I’d be happy if she was my mom instead of my real mother. “Sorry, Miss Jill, the meeting ran late.”
“I thought so,” Miss Jill said. “You look happy, today.”
“I am. We got our main character, and he’s nice and handsome and oh-so-smart!” I couldn’t talk to Miss Jill about most of the details of my work; she had enough clearance to know about the Artemis Colony, but not enough to know about Blue Steel.
Miss Jill didn’t use a notepad or couch like I thought psychologists did before I started coming to her, we both got to sit in our own comfortable chairs and look at each other face to face. “Sounds like you consider that important.”
“Of course it is.” I answered her by rote, now. It took me some time to get used to the idea that therapists spent their time asking questions rather than giving answers. It seemed silly to me at first, but now it was natural. “Would you want to marry someone who’s dumb and ugly and mean?”
“Are you saying if he was dumb, ugly and mean, you would still marry him?”
“Well, yeah, he’s the main character and I’m the love interest. That’s how these things work.” Miss Jill’s body language betrayed her disbelief, but I was used to that as well. “I guess if he wasn’t so nice, I’d have to show him how to be better, but I’m happy I don’t have to.”
“I’m happy for you. Now, remember our exercises?”
I took a sharp breath. Running away won’t help, I have to do therapy to get healthy. “Wh-what would I do, if I’m the main character?” It was a rhetorical question, to buy time for me to calm the fear gnawing away at my stomach. I don’t know, I’m not meant to be the main character, most people aren’t. Everyone thinks they are, but I know better.
“I… I guess first I’d have to ask him on a date instead of waiting for him to do it?” That’s something the main character is supposed to do, but I’m not the main character. “But I can’t. I have to wait for the story to make him ask me.”
“It’s natural to be afraid of rejection, Phoebe.”
Natural. Evolutionary. Correctable with minor adjustments to- No! “I… I can’t.” I’m not allowed to make changes, it’s not my choice. It’s not my fault. I’m not the main character. I’m not the bad guy. I’m not a monster. I’m just the love interest.
“You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.” Miss Jill’s tone was soothing, but it was clear in her voice that she realized she overstepped, which meant there wouldn’t be any progress this session. “You told me before that part of your job was finding the main character of the story. How does it feel to have succeeded at such an important task?”
“Good.” I focused on my breathing exercises. “It feels good.”