“Oh, that’s just the start. She made the whole ‘wait for marriage’ excuse, but come prom? Well, that was when I found out she was cheating on me!” Despite the subject matter, I laughed. In retrospect, the situation was so obvious that it could have been seen from Mars.
“Oh, jeez, kid, that’s rough. She has no idea what she missed out on.” Roberto, much like myself, laughed, though with nowhere near the enthusiasm I had. “How’d you find out, anyway?”
“Now that is a story unto itself.” I paused for dramatic effect. “Well, I show up early because I wanted to surprise her, maybe make out a bit before the party.” Not that she was ever an enthusiastic kisser. “So, I hear this noise that sounds like a scream in her house, so I kick open the door and find her half naked on the floor with her best friend, Sam. Which, so we’re clear, is short for Samantha. Not long after, I went into the service, not a lot of girls there and prostitutes aren’t my thing. Thus concludes the reasons I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-four.”
Bob’s laugh was genuine rather than forced, now. So much so that he began to cough. “And you’re okay with that? I get that it’s hard to compete with tits, but forgiving someone who lied to you and led you on for years without a second thought?. You should be nominated for sainthood.”
I shrugged my shoulders; I could have excused her actions with the ‘it was a different time’ line, but my cover was only twenty six. “Eh, nothing to hold against her. We dated because I was the football star and she was the head cheerleader. Neither of us had any real interest in a relationship. I took it for the get-out-of-relationship-guilt-free card it was. If anything, she may have done me a favor by keeping me from dating a girl whose heart I would have broken. I’m not cut out for serious relationships.” All true, though I excluded the numerous attempts which added the weight of experience to my words.
“You hang in there, kid.” Bob’s tone and expression lost all humor, replaced by the weight of a man who’d lived a long, painful life. “One day you’ll find the right woman and all that angst will vanish. You’ll go from being unable to imagine spending your life with someone, to being unable to imagine life without her. Don’t let a couple bad apples ruin your life.”
I looked over at Roberto, seeking a response that fit my cover. I couldn’t picture Saul as opening up on a subject such as this one. “Didn’t take you for the romantic type.”
“Ain’t nothin’ romantic about it,” Roberto said. “Pure evolution. We all find our one and only, or we die and don’t pass on our genes to the next generation. We’re all descended from a long line of people who found their true loves.”
<They’re starting,> Abernathy cut in about halfway through Roberto’s speech.
<Details.> I went from relaxed to combat-ready, glad to be spared from thinking about my own parents’ relationship. I stretched to hide the sudden tension in my body as I sought ways to break this conversation without suspicion. “Bob. If this is your way of inviting me over to a family barbecue to meet your daughter, it’s quicker to tell me outright.”
<The FBI’s precogs detected the attack, claim we have seven minutes before show time.> Professor Abernathy sounded agitated. <They don’t want us to interfere. I think they’re making a glory grab.>
“If I see you within thirty yards of my Gabriela, I will shoot you.” Despite the threat, Roberto had a smile. “Out of our five kids, she’s the only one who married Catholic. Funny thing, she was the one Bonnie and I were most worried about, real wild child. All the others were straight arrows, then college happened.”
“I’ve heard that happens a lot. Personally, if I have kids I hope they’re all boys. And gay. It’s the only way to be safe these days.” <That’s fine. We don’t care about the glory, just doing the right thing and getting paid obscene amounts of money for it.> Even as I said it, I acknowledged I didn’t believe myself; after all this work, I felt insulted at the idea someone else might steal my proverbial kill. <Maybe they’re afraid my power will throw theirs off. What would be convenient is if we got as close as possible without getting involved. If their plan works, that’s fine. If not, then I’ll be nearby.>
“Ain’t that the sad truth.” Roberto, sensing the ensuing silence, picked up his coffee for a slow sip.
<We need to wait for Doctor Patil before making any final decisions, but I don’t see what we can do which won’t risk your cover.>
I had nothing to say to Bob, so I joined his silence by nursing my own Gatorade. <The mission is as good as finished no matter how this goes down. Scenario one, they succeed and have one in custody. Scenario two, they fail and the perp escapes. In both situations, my cover’s not going to survive the added scrutiny. Even if it did, they would never trust me enough to take me deeper into their organization.>
<I know. You’re right. I’m sure Doctor Patil will agree, but I need authorization before risking the entire operation. If this happens to be an Esper false positive, we might ruin everything we’ve accomplished up to this point.>
She’s right. I almost threw caution to the wind on the advice of a precog. What a humiliating mistake that would have been. <Right. I’ll see if I can think of something subtle the meantime.> I looked over at Roberto. “So, guess the break’s about over. Speaking of, what system do you use on patrols? One of these days they’ll want me driving my own car.”
<They’re in Cadman Plaza North, if you find a method that works. If nothing else, the closer you get, the quicker we can respond to an emergency.>
“I’m a winger,” Roberto said. “Some guys have a system, I do what my gut tells me. Only rule I have is I remember which neighborhoods I go into so I don’t go in at the same time two nights in a row. Whatever you do, don’t let the scum predict where you’ll be ahead of time.”
“Now those are words to live by.” Now for the tough sell. “Think I can pick our route for a bit? Try it out, see how your gut works.”
The radio activated before Roberto had an opportunity to answer. “Two Seventeen. We have a report of a suspicious individual seen near Cranberry and Henry. Description of perp is male, in a grey hooded sweatshirt.”
Roberto tapped the button. “We’re on it.” He shook his head as he pulled us out of the parking lot. “A man in a hoodie? In that neighborhood? Sounds to me like some yuppie just wanted to see a squad car.”
“Well, time to go make the people who think they own the whole city happy.” I was grateful that Roberto had to watch the road rather than observe me forcing myself to calm down. <There is no possible way that’s a coincidence.>
<It could be a Probability Recoil.> Abernathy didn’t elaborate further, nor did she have to. The risks of employing powers which warped time or luck were well known, though not understood. Prevailing theory was a temporal variant of Newton’s third law, where altering probability in one direction required altering it an equal amount in the opposite direction, but it was difficult to test something which existed outside reality. <Or one of the vigilantes wants you nearby when the attack happens.>
<Can’t rule out the FBI, either.> It sounded counterintuitive given the circumstances, but the first thing one had to learn about covert operations was that they thrived on the counterintuitive. If some asshole thought they could get something extra from us, they’d feed us any line which made results most likely. To say nothing of them having precogs of their own. <In any case, now I have to be in the vicinity if I want to maintain the deception. I consider this a blessing.>
<Conventional wisdom would make a case against walking into what looks more and more like a trap with every passing second.> Her voice carried a note of amusement. <But what use is conventional wisdom compared to taking refuge in audacity?>
<No one’s going to let me live that down, are they? If I live to be three hundred, your descendants will still talk about it.>
<Well, it was either that or the story about not losing your virginity until your mid twenties. Take your pick. You’ve only got seconds before Doctor Patil and the others arrive.>
<Audacity it is, then. Oh, and for future reference, I was only telling stories so I could maintain my cover. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re true.>
<If you insist.>
<What happened?> Doctor Patil’s voice carried the ragged gasps of a man who needed more cardio in his life.
<The FBI’s about to play their hand, and now everyone’s upping the ante. Abernathy knows more than I do at this point.> Roberto kept quiet during the drive while I explained what we knew to the boss. The drive itself proved faster than expected as we dodged every traffic light on our way. Yet another impossible coincidence on a day full of impossible coincidences.
Our drive through the streets looking for our suspicious man proved about as fruitless as expected. If such a person existed in the first place, he had long ago left for greener pastures. The boredom made Roberto talkative again. “Know what I like best about working with you?”
“Getting to sit in the car and watch me get my ass handed to me by seven foot tall lizard-women?”
Bob chuckled. “Nah, that’s only in third or fourth place, tops. My favorite is we don’t have to slow down and point spotlights out the window. You can see in the dark better than normal folks can see in the day. Thanks for speeding up what would otherwise be a colossal waste of time.”
“Which means you can sit on your ass twice as fast, huh?” I considered lying about a possible target to buy more time. Perhaps I could spot a DUI, or just a drunk on the sidewalk, to give me the excuse necessary. Glass shattered before I had enough of a reason, along with a man’s scream that was loud enough for even Roberto to hear from this distance.
“Shit!” Roberto’s pulse jumped as he hit the siren and the gas in a single practiced motion. “Think it’s our mystery man?”
“Perhaps.” I went through my usual faux-ritual of charging my supposed powers. “Guess the trip’s not such a waste, after all.” <On the off chance that I’m walking into an ambush, I’d like my stunner and a clip of blue steel ammo.>
<You’ll have them in a moment.>
The advantage of a police jacket is that it offered plenty of room to hide a metal sleeve or two. Coupled with my lightshow to distract, all I needed to do was allow my forcefield to expand an air pocket inside the sleeve and wait until a sudden weight was added to my clothes. Knowing these two weapons were capable of nullifying over ninety five percent of all Imbued powers was a comfort I needed under the circumstances.
I caught sight of the man laying in the splintered concrete of a city sidewalk. He must have been Imbued for his body to take that impact without exploding into little more than red paste, though ‘intact’ and ‘still breathing’ were two separate questions.
“Gun it.” I pushed my door open against the wind, then waited for my jump. I timed well, landing within feet of the wounded man.
Waves of dispair washed over me, as I thought about how my unwillingness to act until now may have cost this man his life. I know this power. I clenched my jaw and forced myself to focus on the mission. How much worse will you feel if others die because you couldn’t control yourself. It was so much stronger this time than the last. My stomach and throat both ached from the stress of the emotions, and forcing myself to ignore them. Without the blue steel shielding, I don’t know if I could have withstood the effect.
In his indent, the man I assumed was Stormbreaker shook. Even without the bioscanner tech working, it was obvious he’d broken his neck when he hit the ground. Or, perhaps his neck was broken before he hit. I pulled my gun, ready to shoot anyone who got close. Squelching sounds emanated from Stormbreaker as his body seemed to be piecing itself back together.
<Looks like they sent Stormbreaker, and whomever the FBI used as bait is a powerhouse.> I knelt next to Stormbreaker. To my surprise, there were tears drawing lines through the dirt on his face. “Are you alright? What happened?” Stupid, perhaps, to expect a man with a busted neck to speak, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
I sense a black spot in my scanners, as data flickered in meaningless, insane static. It wasn’t intelligible, but it revealed an object falling from near the top of the complex. A man hit the dirt feet first, leaving a crater behind with his power. He was a rather scrawny looking middle-aged man in a cheap, but not unfashionable, business suit. <Got an unidentified Imbued. Something about him’s screwing the sensors up. Also a pretty solid Tank. I think he’s a Summoner type powerset.>
<This one, I can explain,> Integral said. <There’s a bizarre form of jamming power at work. It’s not defeating the sensors, it’s just throwing out a bunch of nonsensical data.>
<Good to know.> I didn’t see the need to point out that I knew how radar jamming worked. Instead I trained my blue steel loaded firearm at him. “Police! Turn around and get on the ground!”
“Relax, I’m with the FBI.” The mystery man spoke with the confidence of someone who knew bullets were no threat. I wondered if that applied to the anti-power effects of the metal in my gun and body. “I’m in the midde of apprehending a major criminal.”
“I don’t care if you’re the Queen of England! Get down before I put you down!” It was something of an empty threat, given I knew he was FBI and he knew I was undercover. At the same time, the emotional effects of Stormbreaker’s power hurt on a physical level, and forcing myself to get angry was the best method I had to avoid breaking down in tears.
“If you insist.” The man turned toward the building, then lowered himself to his knees. His tone was conversational, too quiet to be heard from such a distance for someone without powers. “My identification is in my jacket, if you would allow me to show you-”
“Infiltrator protocols! Shut up and get down!”
“So that’s how we’re playing it?” He did as told, laying face down on the ground. “Just so you know, I’ll have a conversation with your boss about this behavior.”
Sure you will. <He’s cooperating. Stormbreaker appears to have a broken neck and dozens internal injuries. His power is keeping him alive, but that’s about all it can do. Without my scanners active, I can’t heal his injuries->
As if by magic, all Stormbreaker’s lifesigns became clear in my senses. <I can see him now.> It was a redundant statement since the others were seeing everything I could see on my technology in the first place.
Stormbreaker’s body was a mess, complete with partial brain damage from where his spine compressed into his neck and brain stem. His heart had been ripped out of place by the impact force which separated his pericardium from the breastbone, and numerous other injuries less serious by far. My forcefield went to work mending the worst of it, aided by a low level regenerative power from Stormbreaker.
Even if this is a bust, saving Stormbreaker’s life should earn some lost trust back from these vigilantes. “Stormbreaker? I know it’s you. Turn off your fucking power!”
“I… I killed them…” Stormbreaker croaked more than spoke. How he could accomplish even that with his spine shattered, I attributed to his power. Why’s he remorseful now? I looked at the FBI Imbued. Power control? Reflection? It would explain what he’s demonstrated thus far. “So, so many. Please. Let me die.” My fingers trembled on the gun. I wanted to grant his request. It would be so simple, and under the influence of an Infiltrator no one could have blamed me. My struggle ended by allowing the firearm to fall onto the concrete.
I focused on my anger, the rage that allowed me to think through the haze of guilt and regrets. Am I such a monster that I’d rather embrace hate than regret? “If you want to atone, then help me you s-” I almost called him a series of profanities. “I need to know how to find the others. If I can find them, I’ll be able to stop them. But I need to know where your base is hidden.”
“Shadow tube. Seventeen. Twelve. Sixty. One oh three. In that order.” Stormbreaker struggled to get more than a word or two out with every breath, a blend of his injuries and what I could only assume was his own power influencing him.
“Thank you. You’ve done a good thing.” I added a new record for the biggest lie in the universe. With a small act of mercy, I activated the stunner to render Stormbreaker unconscious. The crushing weight of despair lifted “You can get up now!”
I didn’t bother to wait or look back, past the effort needed to grab my gun off the sidewalk. Stormbreaker was just one Imbued, while I was on a race against the clock to hit their main location before they realized they were compromised. <Find me the nearest Shadow Tube location.>
<The restraunt Alice took you to is only a couple miles away.>
I glanced at where Roberto waited in the squad. Even from this distance, I could see the worry on his face. Fuck, no time. As close as we were, it would be faster for me to take the shortcuts afforded to foot traffic than use a vehicle. I kicked up the Transit suite, bringing my foot speed up to somewhat over fifty miles an hour. With a single jump, I cleared a street with no greater harm than startling drunk.
I was still upset, and still pissed, but more than that, I was eager.